Laptop of mass destruction: programmed to explode — or implode?

deproliferatorTHE DEPROLIFERATOR — No, the Laptop of Mass Destruction (LMD) isn’t embedded with a chip that can be programmed to blow up the world. Better known as the Laptop of Death, this computer was supposedly stolen from Iran complete with 1,000 pages of documents innocuously referred to as the “alleged studies.”

What they’re “alleged” to do is prove that Iran is building a nuclear weapon. In fact, “charges based on those documents,” wrote investigative reporter Gareth Porter in 2008, “pose the only remaining obstacles to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declaring that Iran has resolved all unanswered questions about its nuclear program.”

What’s in the documents? Porter wrote that they include “technical specifications for high explosives testing and the schematic layout of a missile re-entry vehicle that appears capable of holding a nuclear weapon.”

But red flags sprout from the studies (referred to as “the documents” from here on) at every turn. To begin with, Porter wrote, in November 2004, “German officials identified [the laptop’s] source as the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK), which [even Bush’s State Department listed] as a terrorist organization.” Also: “There are some indications. . . that the MEK obtained the documents not from an Iranian source but from Israel’s Mossad.” Which, to many, make the documents no more credible than Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s denials that the Holocaust occurred.

Queering the documents’ provenance even further, a “U.S.-based nuclear weapons analyst,” Porter wrote in June of this year, “says he understands that the documents were not originally stored on the laptop [but] were collected by an intelligence network and then assembled on a single laptop.” As Julian Borger of the Guardian wrote: “‘First of all, if you have a clandestine programme, you don’t put it on laptops which can walk away,’ one official [representing who or what Borger doesn’t tell us — RW] said. ‘The data is all in English which may be reasonable for some of the technical matters, but at some point you’d have thought there would be at least some notes in Farsi.'” Picky, picky.

Porter finally had enough. He recently traveled to Vienna, home of the IAEA, to learn what the IAEA sees in these documents. Iran, he explains in his latest piece (emphasis added). . .

. . . has submitted serious evidence that the documents are fraudulent. [Its] permanent representative to the United Nations in Vienna, Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told [him that] he had pointed out to a team of IAEA officials. . . in spring 2008 that none of the supposedly top secret military documents had any security markings of any kind, and that purported letters from defence ministry officials lacked Iranian government seals. … Iranian officials have also claimed other inaccuracies in the documents, involving technical flaws and names of individuals who they say do not exist.”

Oh, did I forget to mention that the United States refuses to provide either the IAEA or Iran with hard copies of the documents? Aside from schematics, they include a one-page letter from one Iranian firm to another, Kimia Maadan. As Porter wrote in August (emphasis added):

The letter reportedly had handwritten notes on it referring to studies on the redesign of a missile reentry vehicle. … However, Iran turned over to the IAEA a copy of the same May 2003 letter with no handwritten notes on it. [It’s only natural to suspect] that the copy of the letter with handwriting on it was a fabrication done by an outside intelligence agency in order to prove that Iran was working on nuclear weapons.

This is the LMD’s smoking — or in this case, unsmoking — gun. Nothing to see here, move along. In his new piece, Porter writes:

The IAEA. … suggested that the existence of the original letter supports the authenticity of the alleged studies documents, because it “demonstrates a direct link between the relevant documentation and Iran”. [That’s the best the IAEA could do? — RW] That argument appears to have deliberately conflated the original letter. . . with the allegedly incriminating handwritten notes on it.

Is that simple minded or what? Compounding the error is an IAEA official’s “would you believe. . .?” Maxwell Smart moment. Porter writes that he. . .

. . .sought to discredit the original letter by suggesting that the Iranians might have “whited out the handwritten notes [and/or] there were two original letters, one of which was kept by the sender, and that the handwritten notes [were] on the second original.”

The IAEA has refused to acknowledge doubts about the document and, Porter explains, “has made little, if any, effort to test the authenticity of the intelligence documents or to question officials of the governments [mainly the United States] holding them.” In fact, “IAEA Safeguard Department chief Olli Heinonen signaled his de facto acceptance of the. . . documents when he [used them in a] February 2008 ‘technical briefing’ for member states.” That’s the same Heinonen who, wrote Kaveh Afrasiabi at Asia Times Online last year, “has displayed an uncanny propensity to adopt at face value any tidbit of disinformation on Iran.”

By way of comparing how the IAEA has handled these documents with another of dubious origin, Porter writes. . .

The IAEA’s apparent lack of concern about [the documents] contrasts sharply with the IAEA’s investigation of the Niger uranium documents cited by the George W. Bush administration as justification for invading Iraq in 2002-2003. In the Niger case, the agency concluded that the documents were fabricated based on a comparison of the “form, format, contents and signature” of the documents with other relevant correspondence.

The IAEA aside, as Jeffrey Lewis of the New America Foundation wrote at his authoritative disarmament blog Arms Control Wonk: “I’ve said it once and I will say it again: The United States is going to look fantastically stupid if the laptop story turns out to be bogus.”

Staunch on Iraq, did ElBaradei finally drink the Kool-Aid on Iran? On the one hand, as an apparent counterweight to Bush administration aggression, he seemed to play favorites with Iran at times. But to keep such charges from delegitimizing his efforts, and with Heinonen working at cross-purposes to him, ElBaradei may have made concessions on the LMD and its documents.

What’s Taking Them So Long?

Meanwhile, want the real low-down on Iran’s nuclear program itself? See the new Arms Control Association threat assessment brief by Greg Thielmann, Is There Time to Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Weapon? One point the author makes is that an alternative theory to the 2007 U.S. national intelligence estimate that found Iran had probably discontinued its nuclear weapons development program. . .

. . . has emerged, or re-emerged, among some members of Congress, executive branch officials, and the press, advancing a very different assessment [which starts] from the conventional wisdom that fissile material production is the biggest technological obstacle, the so-called long pole in the tent, in any proliferant’s quest to develop nuclear weapons. This narrative suggests that weaponization, pursued in secret before its alleged halt in 2003, may still be underway. … Because Iran has acquired the knowledge and facilities to produce HEU [nuclear weapon fuel], [rapid breakout capability could be] less than a year away.

But, Thielmann writes, that fails to take into account just how far Iran has to go. To wit. . .

Producing and integrating a reliable weapon for the front end of a ballistic missile presents. . . a challenge often overlooked in the stock formulas frequently used in public discussions. [Nicely phrased, huh? — RW] It requires obtaining or developing specialized detonators; a high-explosive system, including a sophisticated lens system; and neutron initiation components. It requires learning fissile core fabrication and nonfissile component fabrication, performance testing of firing cells.

In other words, for once, it is rocket science — to an exponential degree, in fact. Still, Americans and Israelis wonder what’s taking Iran longer to squeeze out its first bomb than seeming technological backwaters like Pakistan and North Korea?

First, neither country was forced to work with the IAEA looking over its shoulder and watching its every move, like Iran is. Meanwhile, Iran may maintain undocumented facilities, but keeping them secret in today’s surveillance environment is no mean feat. Equally to the point, with A.Q. Khan out of action, it’s that much harder to procure nuclear know-how and technology on the black market. Thus does it appear that progress toward Iran’s goal — not a nuclear weapon apparently, but the nearly as coveted “breakout capability” — will continue at a glacial pace.

First posted at the Faster Times.

1 reply »

  1. Also: “There are some indications. . . that the MEK obtained the documents not from an Iranian source but from Israel’s Mossad.” Which, to many, make the documents no more credible than Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s denials that the Holocaust occurred.

    I read a short conversation about fear today, and it seems appropriate to this. Are we truly worried that Iran might produce a nuclear weapon someday? What would change about the world if it did?

    And when the case for their nefarious intentions is made with what looks like the shoddiest of “evidence”, perhaps it’s time to ask not if the goal is to stoke fear (that seems a given), but why? Israeli “security”? The simple need for an enemy? A long dreamt of invasion? Just because?

    If Mr. Obama wants to change the world, he should start by expressly not dealing in fear.