U.S. tries Google for intelligence on Iran
Internet search yields names cited in U.N. draft resolution
When the State Department recently asked the CIA for names of Iranians who
could be sanctioned for their involvement in a clandestine nuclear weapons
program, the agency refused, citing a large workload and a desire to protect
its sources and tradecraft.
Frustrated, the State Department assigned a junior Foreign Service officer
to find the names another way -- by using Google. Those with the most hits
under search terms such as "
targets for international rebuke Friday when a sanctions resolution
circulated at the United Nations.
Policymakers and intelligence officials have always struggled when it comes
to deciding how and when to disclose secret information, such as names of
Iranians with suspected ties to nuclear weapons. In some internal debates,
policymakers win out and intelligence is made public to further political or
diplomatic goals. In other cases, such as this one, the intelligence
community successfully argues that protecting information outweighs the
desires of some to share it with the world.
But that argument can also put the
of relying, in part, on an Internet search to select targets for
None of the 12 Iranians that the State Department eventually singled out for
potential bans on international travel and business dealings is believed by
the CIA to be directly connected to Iran's most suspicious nuclear
"There is nothing that proves involvement in a clandestine weapons program,
and there is very little out there at all that even connects people to a
clandestine weapons program," said one official familiar with the
insisted on anonymity when discussing the use of intelligence.
What little information there is has been guarded at CIA headquarters. The
agency declined to discuss the case in detail, but a senior intelligence
official said: "There were several factors that made it a complicated and
time-consuming request, not the least of which were well-founded concerns"
about revealing the way the CIA gathers intelligence on Iran.
That may be why the junior State Department officer, who has been with the
nonproliferation bureau for only a few months, was put in front of a
More than 100 names
An initial Internet search yielded over 100 names, including dozens of
Iranian diplomats who have publicly defended their country's efforts as
intended to produce energy, not bombs, the sources said. The list also
included names of Iranians who have spoken with U.N. inspectors or have
It was submitted to the CIA for approval but the agency refused to look up
such a large number of people, according to three government sources. Too
time-consuming, the intelligence community said, for the CIA's
staff of 140 people. The list would need to be pared down. So the State
Department cut the list in half and resubmitted the names.
In the end, the CIA approved a handful of individuals, though none is
believed connected to Project 1-11 --
design a weapons system capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The names of
Project 1-11 staff members have never been released by any government and
doing so may have raised questions that the CIA was not willing or fully
able to answer. But the agency had no qualms about approving names already
publicly available on the Internet.
"Using a piece of intel on project 1-11, which we couldn't justify in
open-source reporting, or with whatever the Russians had, would have put us
in a difficult position," an intelligence official said. "Inevitably,
someone would have asked, 'Why this guy?' and then we would have been back
to the old problem of justifying intelligence."
A senior administration official acknowledged that the back-and-forth with
the CIA had been difficult, especially given the administration's desire to
"In this instance, we were the requesters and the CIA was the clearer," the
official said. "It's the process we go through on a lot of these things.
Both sides don't know a lot of reasons for why either side is requesting or
denying things. Sources and methods became their stated rationale and that
is what they do. But for policymaking, it can be quite frustrating."
intelligence was sharply eroded by the collapse of prewar claims about
A senior intelligence official said the intelligence community is determined
to avoid mistakes of the past when dealing with
you push intelligence out there, you can't take it back," the official said.