Newsweek’s Mark Hosenball, who also wrote the Bolton/Cuba story referenced in my last post, has another piece about the MEK/NCRI’s role in revealing Iran’s nuclear programs. (See also ACW 24 October 2004)

Most of you probably know that the NCRI announced in August 2002 that Iran had secret nuclear facilities at Arak and Natanz. The USFG had no official reaction at the time, but the IAEA’s investigation of Tehran’s nuclear programs began shortly afterwards.

Now, the NCRI was largely correct in that instance. (I say “largely” because its August 2002 announcement referred to Natanz as a facility for “nuclear fuel production,” which could imply something other than uranium enrichment.) Since then, however, it is often said that this group’s revelations gave Western intelligence agencies their first clue about the facilities in question.

Indeed, Hosenball points out, Bush told reporters 16 March that the facilities were “discovered, not because of their compliance with the IAEA or NPT, but because a dissident group pointed it out to the world.”

But it seems that some in the IC have taken issue with the implication that they knew nothing about Arak and Natanz:

Intelligence sources tell NEWSWEEK, however, that while the council’s revelation may have been new to the public, U.S. agencies had reported the same information to policymakers, in classified form, well before the resistance group went public with it.

U.S. officials have said much the same thing in public on at least two occasions. First, former SecState Powell said during a March 2003 interview that the US had shared intelligence with the IAEA. Second, Presidential Medal of Freedom Winner George Tenet said almost a year later that “It is flat wrong to say that we were surprised by reports from the Iranian opposition.”

Another issue concerns the NCRI’s track record for accuracy. News from this group is often good for getting right-wingers to show their “O” face and belittle the EU3’s diplomacy with Tehran, but it’s probably good that we’re not banking on these exiles for too much intel.

For example, IAEA inspectors visited another site that the NCRI ID’d as a secret nuclear facility. ElBaradei reported this past November that the inspectors …

… visited three locations at an industrial complex in Kolahdouz in western Tehran that had been mentioned in open source reports as relevant to enrichment activities. While no work was seen at those locations that could be directly linked to uranium enrichment, environmental samples were taken. The results did not reveal any indications of activities involving the use of nuclear material.

Additionally, an IAEA official told me 5 April that no subsequent NCRI reports have led the agency to any smoking guns.

Moreover, ElBaradei thinks the IAEA needs more information, which suggests that the NCRI isn’t helping all that much.

To be fair, the NCRI was right once and the IAEA is continuing to follow up on at least some of the group’s information. But the point is that we have the agency there to verify the exiles’ claims. Of course, that didn’t much matter with Iraq …