Why US won't fully answer skeptics of Iran assassination plot

US diplomats want more information about Iran's involvement to be made public, to answer skeptics. But intelligence officials balk at revealing much more about assassination plot evidence.

When it comes to convincing the world of the veracity of its case against Iran in the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, the United States has an intelligence problem.

While US diplomats would like to see more of the evidence made public as part of the push to get tough with Iran, intelligence officials are balking at any more public disclosures of evidence, for their own serious reasons.

The result, some officials and analysts say, is that the US is unlikely to be able to make a convincing case for international action in venues where it would count most, such as the United Nations Security Council.

“It’s the classic Catch-22, where you have people in the US government who have the ammunition to make a case, in this case for serious action against Iran, but they don’t have the ability to expend that ammunition to draw in the key parties,” says Wayne White, a former senior official with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

“Regardless of how sound the evidence may be, the Russians and the Chinese are going to be skeptical and are going to demand lots in the way of detailed evidence,” he adds, “and they aren’t going to be given it.”

Obama administration officials say evidence linking the plot to Iran is solid, and a number of foreign diplomats and other officials – for example, members of Congress – who have had access to the evidence say it is largely convincing.

But the kind of evidence that might help convince the large number of skeptics in the US and abroad of the Iranian government’s involvement in the plot is unlikely to be shared much farther that it already has been, some administration officials say. That’s because intelligence officials refuse to allow access to the information, and especially to the most sensitive components of it, spread more widely, for several reasons:

  • Divulging the information could compromise and potentially endanger sources.
  • Making sensitive intelligence public could jeopardize legal proceedings against alleged criminals in the case, as in the case under way in a New York court.
  • Divulging information now could hamper future intelligence-gathering on Iran, and intelligence agencies are unlikely to be willing to make that trade.

The US knows it has a credibility problem, one State Department official says. But the official, who has had access to the evidence but who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss any aspect of it, says intelligence officials are adamant that revealing more of their information – or sharing more widely what has already been laid out to small circles of domestic officials and foreign diplomats – risks compromising sources.

Mr. White, who is now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, says the US faces other problems, including the strength of its evidence linking the alleged plot to the higher levels of the Iranian government, and whether the intelligence is “technical” or “human.”

One reason the case against Iraq's Saddam Hussein and his supposed stockpiles of WMDs turned out to be empty was that the “evidence” was largely human, White says, while the technical evidence was nil.

“How many times did we get human intelligence out of the CIA and find it lacking,” he asks, “because the technical evidence wasn’t there to back it up?”

An example of technical evidence would be telephone intercepts involving Iranian officials, as opposed to testimony from a suspect that he had telephone contact with officials.

White says he also dealt with cases in which the FBI would not share crucial information, even with the rest of the intelligence community, because of fears of the legal impact.

“They always said the same thing: ‘This could become part of a legal proceeding, and sharing could damage this evidence in court,’ ” he says.

US officials – from Attorney General Eric Holder up to President Obama, in remarks last Friday – claim that the evidence links the alleged plot to the highest levels of the Iranian regime.

But that evidence would be the hardest to substantiate, White says, and would be among the least likely to be shared freely with the countries “that are not traditionally part of the inner-ally group.”

It’s also the evidence that may be the “softest” of the whole case against Iran, White says, based on his contacts in the administration.

Regardless of the strength or weakness of the evidence, a key impediment to making it public may be that intelligence officials decide that this case, with its odd details and befuddling actors, is not the one that calls for laying out all the cards.

“We have really tough intelligence issues involving Iran as it is, so do you want to blow your access to sourcing over this case?” White queries. “I think not.”

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