In a riveting narrative, The Inheritance describes the huge costs of distraction and lost opportunities at home and abroad as Iraq soaked up manpower, money, and intelligence capabilities. The 2008 market collapse further undermined American leadership, leaving the new president with a set of challenges unparalleled since Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the Oval Office.
Sanger takes readers into the White House Situation Room to reveal how Washington penetrated Tehran’s nuclear secrets, leading President Bush, in his last year, to secretly step up covert actions in a desperate effort to delay an Iranian bomb. Meanwhile, his intelligence chiefs made repeated secret missions to Pakistan as they tried to stem a growing insurgency and cope with an ally who was also aiding the enemy–while receiving billions in American military aid. Now the new president faces critical choices: Is it better to learn to live with a nuclear Iran or risk overt or covert confrontation? Is it worth sending U.S. forces deep into Pakistani territory at the risk of undermining an unstable Pakistani government sitting on a nuclear arsenal? It is a race against time and against a new effort by Islamic extremists–never before disclosed–to quietly infiltrate Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
“Bush wrote a lot of checks,” one senior intelligence official told Sanger, “that the next president is going to have to cash.”
The Inheritance takes readers to Afghanistan, where Bush never delivered on his promises for a Marshall Plan to rebuild the country, paving the way for the Taliban’s return. It examines the chilling calculus of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il, who built actual weapons of mass destruction in the same months that the Bush administration pursued phantoms in Iraq, then sold his nuclear technology in the Middle East in an operation the American intelligence apparatus missed. And it explores how China became one of the real winners of the Iraq war, using the past eight years to expand its influence in Asia, and lock up oil supplies in Africa while Washington was bogged down in the Middle East. Yet Sanger, a former foreign correspondent in Asia, sees enormous potential for the next administration to forge a partnership with Beijing on energy and the environment.
At once a secret history of our foreign policy misadventures and a lucid explanation of the opportunities they create, The Inheritance is vital reading for anyone trying to understand the extraordinary challenges that lie ahead.
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Read an Excerpt
Fate changes no man, unless he changes fate.
—Epigraph on the opening page of a status report prepared by engineers of Project 111, the Iranian military’s effort to design
A nuclear Warhead
By the time President Bush’s national security team gathered in the Situation Room the Thursday before Thanksgiving 2007, the rumor had already raced through the upper reaches of the administration: America’s much-maligned spy agencies had hit the jackpot.
With a mix of luck and technological genius, they had finally penetrated the inner sanctum of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. For weeks the dialogues, laboratory drawings, and bitter complaints of Iran’s weapons engineers had secretly circulated through the headquarters of the CIA and the National Intelligence Council, the small organization charged with putting together classified, consensus “estimates” about the long-term security challenges facing the nation. Now the highlights were crammed into a draft of a 140-page National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was stacked in front of every chair in the Situation Room’s new, high-tech conference center, where Vice President Cheney, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and others prepared to pick through it. Though it would never be explicitly discussed that morning, the memories of another NIE—the disastrously wrongheaded one on Iraq in the fall of 2002—was the subtext of their deliberations. No future NIE on weapons of mass destruction could escape from under that cloud.
But this report was different in every respect. It detailed the names of each of the Iranian engineers and program managers, along with excerpts from their deliberations about the nuclear program and speculation about the political travails inside Iran’s fractious circle of top leaders. What those exchanges revealed turned out to be so mind-blowing that it threatened to upend Washington’s strategy toward Tehran for months, maybe years, to come. The estimate concluded, in short, that while Iran was racing ahead to produce fuel that would give it the capability to build a bomb, it had suspended all of its work on the actual design of a weapon in late 2003. No one knew whether the weapons programs—what the Iranians referred to as “Project 110” to develop a nuclear trigger around a sphere of uranium, and “Project 111” to manufacture a warhead—had been resumed since then. The discovery cut the legs out from under Bush’s argument that Iran harbored an active nuclear-weapons program that needed to be stopped immediately.
To those who delved into the report, starting with Robert Gates, the former director of the CIA who was now defense secretary, the intelligence estimate was one of the most imprecisely worded, poorly assembled intelligence documents in memory. Later, Gates would declare that in his whole career in intelligence he had never seen “an NIE that had such an impact on U.S. diplomacy.” He did not mean it as a compliment.
“The irony is it made our effort to strengthen the political and the financial sanctions more difficult because people figured, well, the military option is now off the table,” Gates told me a few months after the estimate was released.
To many of Gates’s colleagues on the national security team, it seemed clear that Bush and Cheney were paying the price for twisting the intelligence on Iraq. Either out of a new sense of caution or out of fear that Bush was laying the predicate for war, the authors of the intelligence report had hemmed the president in, leaving Bush little justification for military action unless, as Gates put it, “the Iranians do something stupid.”
The summary opened with a set of “key judgments,” the first section of every National Intelligence Estimate, and sometimes the only pages that top officials read. To this day, those judgments are the only part of the intelligence estimate that has been made public—a decision prompted largely by the realization that once the classified version went to Capitol Hill, the main conclusion would leak instantly. The key judgments were written in a shorthand that emphasized the remarkable new discovery that some powerful Iranian had ordered a halt to the weapons design work. But it failed to say what sophisticated readers instantly understood: Designing the weapon is the easiest step in putting together a nuclear bomb. It could be done relatively quickly later on in the development process, presuming the Iranians had not already purchased a workable design from the Russian nuclear scientists who kept jetting into Tehran after the fall of the Soviet Union, or from the Pakistanis. The hard part of bomb-building is obtaining the fuel—the part of the project that was still speeding along in public view. The omission of that distinction in the NIE summary had to do with its intended audience. “We never wrote this to be read by the general public,” one of the authors of the report told me. “So it is missing a lot of the context.”
But once the key judgments became public, the reaction astounded everyone from President Bush to Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, and Michael Hayden, the CIA director. No one was more astounded than the authors of the report inside the National Intelligence Council, who had written the document with the assurance that it would never be made public. Around the world, critics of America’s many intelligence failures in Iraq trumpeted the Iran report’s conclusion to make the case that even the Americans now had their doubts that Iran was pursuing a bomb. As a consequence, the Germans delayed plans to announce new sanctions; the Russians and the Chinese said they would not vote for stiffer action against Iran.
Readers of the full classified version of the NIE, however, walked away with a very different impression. In their copies, the report contained the first allegations of a complex, covert program by the Iranians to enrich uranium at sites other than the giant facility outside the ancient city of Natanz, where inspectors were counting every gram of nuclear material. The covert enrichment program, too, had been halted, the classified sections of the report concluded.
“I’m not saying we saw centrifuges spinning on the edge of the Caspian Sea,” said one senior intelligence official who was deeply involved in reviewing the intelligence with Bush. “But there was a secret enrichment program too.” That was important, he said, because “none of us believe that they will create weapons-grade fuel at Natanz. What they are producing at Natanz is a body of knowledge there that they can transfer elsewhere.”
Whatever the truth—that Iran wants a bomb, that it wanted a bomb until it realized the cost, or that it simply wants the capability to build a bomb someday should the mullahs decide to take the last step—it is now clear that the effect of the intelligence report was far more detrimental than anyone realized at the time. The NIE’s findings, or at least the awkwardly worded declassified version, sent a go-back-to- sleep message around the globe. In the intelligence community’s overcaution about not repeating its mistakes in Iraq, analysts may have actually erred the other way, veering toward the kind of mistakes they made when they underestimated the Soviet effort to build a bomb sixty years ago or the pace of the Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani efforts that followed. It may turn out that one of the great post-Iraq paradoxes was that in crying wolf about Iraq, the American intelligence community found itself unable to raise the alarm about Iran.
Certainly the Iranians think so. The country’s messianic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not only celebrated the intelligence findings, he sped up the deployment of new centrifuges, continuing to enrich uranium as fast as possible. The goal seemed clear: Create such a large infrastructure and inventory of nuclear fuel that the rest of the world will conclude it is simply too late in the game to get it back.
The result is that the next administration inherits an Iran newly emboldened to race ahead with its nuclear program and become ever more dominant in the region. By the middle of 2008, other nations that have historically feared Iran—a group of countries led by the Saudis—were nearly apoplectic. They were publicly talking about building up their own nuclear capabilities. And suddenly the world turned upside down: When the Israelis staged a clearly provocative military exercise that simulated a hundred-plane attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Saudis issued not one word of protest.
“You know,” one of Bush’s top aides said to me in the summer of 2008, after returning from a Middle East trip with his boss, “there are a lot of people in Iran who are afraid we are going to bomb them. And there are a lot of other people in the region who are afraid we aren’t.”
It fell to Michael McConnell, the man who oversees the president’s daily briefings, to tell Bush about the intelligence breakthrough in the summer of 2007, while the rest of Washington was fleeing for the cooling climate of the mountains and the beach. Just weeks before, a draft of the NIE that was circulating through the intelligence community had read a lot like the previous reports on Iran, though in a fit of Iraq-induced caution it said that the intelligence community now had only “moderate” confidence that Iran was determined to build a weapon, which was down from “high confidence” a few years before. The change had been made because in the interim there had been no new evidence of nuclear work—and no one wanted to repeat the mistake they made with Saddam’s program, which analysts asserted must have been progressing because there was no reason it should have stopped.
But now, McConnell told Bush, a team of CIA analysts had come to Hayden with the fruits of an astounding technological breakthrough. After twenty years of watching via spy satellites or relying on international inspectors who were playing a running game of cat-and- mouse with the Iranians, the United States finally had found a way to glean the intentions of Iran’s leaders and nuclear engineers.
How they did so ranked among the biggest secrets in Washington. Officials insist there were several sources; they would not have relied on a single source of intelligence for a finding of such magnitude. But clearly a good deal of the success came from the penetration of Iranian computer networks.
For four or five years American spy agencies, led by the code breakers at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland, had worked on perfecting a series of technologies that enabled them to tunnel through computer networks—with astounding results. In Iraq, they had successfully bored into the computers of suspected al Qaeda terrorists, in one case even manipulating data to lure someone into a trap. Iran was a far harder target, with much more sophisticated computer security. The country’s nuclear designers report to one of the most elite and secretive units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The details of exactly how the United States got inside the Iranian network are highly classified.1 But the cyber invasion gave Americans access to a treasure trove of reports that detailed, with remarkable specificity, Iran’s covert efforts to design a weapon and eventually to make it small enough so that it could fit atop a Shahab-3, an Iranian missile capable of hitting Israel or parts of Europe. It was all there—designs, sketches, and most important in this case, a running dialogue among engineers detailing what was going well and what wasn’t.
Hayden was intrigued, but suspicious enough that he immediately sent the whole package of evidence to what is known at CIA headquarters in Langley as the CIC, the Counterintelligence Center. It is a corner of the agency that is staffed by professional paranoids who examine every major new piece of evidence to determine whether it amounts to “strategic deception,” information planted by someone looking to deceive the agency with false data. The analysts came back saying they thought the evidence was genuine, but just in case, they recommended reducing the agency’s level of confidence in the trustworthiness of the new finding.
“We didn’t do that,” one senior intelligence official told me. “These are guys who wouldn’t trust that their mother was telling the truth if she said, ‘You were a beautiful baby.’”
Hayden told McConnell that he needed more time to assess the discovery, and that despite the pressure from Congress to report on what was happening in Iran, a thorough analysis of the credibility of the new information would take until Thanksgiving.
McConnell knew that he would have to handle Bush carefully—and he did. The “good news,” claimed McConnell, was that the intelligence appeared to confirm what Bush had long alleged but could never before prove: Despite their years of denials, the Iranians had constructed a secret military program devoted to solving the mysteries of building a bomb. There could be no other explanation for why engineers were tinkering with warhead designs.
But there was a serious hitch, McConnell warned. The flood of computer data that was still being translated and picked apart left it completely unclear who gave the order to shut down the weapons program. There was no indication of whether the bomb design effort had subsequently been turned back on.
Later, Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, told me he thought that a combination of events in 2003 must have led the Iranians to fear that the heart of their weapons-design program was about to be exposed. If the program was discovered, it would rip the cover off the story Iran was telling about how it was merely pursuing its right to produce reactor fuel. Hadley argued that it was no coincidence that the order to suspend the work came eight months or so after the American invasion of Iraq and just two months after the seizure of nuclear centrifuges headed for Libya. The noose was clearly tightening around Iran’s first big supplier of centrifuge technology, the Pakistani nuclear engineer A. Q. Khan. The Iranians knew he was likely to talk and reveal Iran’s purchases—if he hadn’t already.
Whatever the motivation, the intelligence now in the hands of senior administration officials in Washington revealed that Iranian engineers, like engineers everywhere, were fuming about the idiocy of their technologically clueless masters. (Those masters were never named in the material.) The engineers believed their bosses were making a huge mistake. After years of work and huge sums of money expended, Iranian scientists had finally been making progress toward a Persian bomb, one that would level the playing field with Israel, leap ahead of the Saudis, and help restore Iran to a day of glory and influence it had not enjoyed for centuries. It had taken decades to get this far: The program had run into technological roadblocks, political opposition in Tehran, and covert efforts by the United States and others who, among other things, sabotaged the power supplies for Iran’s centrifuges so that the equipment would blow up if it were turned on. But all those setbacks were temporary.