The George W. Bush administration has long pushed the “laptop documents” — 1,000 pages of technical documents supposedly from a stolen Iranian laptop — as hard evidence of Iranian intentions to build a nuclear weapon. Now charges based on those documents pose the only remaining obstacles to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declaring that Iran has resolved all unanswered questions about its nuclear programme.
But those documents have long been regarded with great suspicion by U.S. and foreign analysts. German officials have identified the source of the laptop documents in November 2004 as the Mujahideen e Khalq (MEK), which along with its political arm, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), is listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organisation.
There are some indications, moreover, that the MEK obtained the documents not from an Iranian source but from Israel’s Mossad.
In its latest report on Iran, circulated Feb. 22, the IAEA, under strong pressure from the Bush administration, included descriptions of plans for a facility to produce “green salt”, technical specifications for high explosives testing and the schematic layout of a missile reentry vehicle that appears capable of holding a nuclear weapon. Iran has been asked to provide full explanations for these alleged activities.
Tehran has denounced the documents on which the charges are based as fabrications provided by the MEK, and has demanded copies of the documents to analyse, but the United States had refused to do so.
The Iranian assertion is supported by statements by German officials. A few days after then Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the laptop documents, Karsten Voight, the coordinator for German-American relations in the German Foreign Ministry, was reported by the Wall Street Journal Nov. 22, 2004 as saying that the information had been provided by “an Iranian dissident group”.
A German official familiar with the issue confirmed to this writer that the NCRI had been the source of the laptop documents. “I can assure you that the documents came from the Iranian resistance organisation,” the source said.
The Germans have been deeply involved in intelligence collection and analysis regarding the Iranian nuclear programme. According to a story by Washington Post reporter Dafna Linzer soon after the laptop documents were first mentioned publicly by Powell in late 2004, U.S. officials said they had been stolen from an Iranian whom German intelligence had been trying to recruit, and had been given to intelligence officials of an unnamed country in Turkey.
The German account of the origins of the laptop documents contradicts the insistence by unnamed U.S. intelligence officials who insisted to journalists William J. Broad and David Sanger in November 2005 that the laptop documents did not come from any Iranian resistance groups.
Despite the fact that it was listed as a terrorist organisation, the MEK was a favourite of neoconservatives in the Pentagon, who were proposing in 2003-2004 to use it as part of a policy to destabilise Iran. The United States is known to have used intelligence from the MEK on Iranian military questions for years. It was considered a credible source of intelligence on the Iranian nuclear programme after 2002, mainly because of its identification of the facility in Natanz as a nuclear site.
The German source said he did not know whether the documents were authentic or not. However, CIA analysts, and European and IAEA officials who were given access to the laptop documents in 2005 were very sceptical about their authenticity.
The Guardian’s Julian Borger last February quoted an IAEA official as saying there is “doubt over the provenance of the computer”.
A senior European diplomat who had examined the documents was quoted by the New York Times in November 2005 as saying, “I can fabricate that data. It looks beautiful, but is open to doubt.”
Scott Ritter, the former U.S. military intelligence officer who was chief United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998, noted in an interview that the CIA has the capability test the authenticity of laptop documents through forensic tests that would reveal when different versions of different documents were created.
The fact that the agency could not rule out the possibility of fabrication, according to Ritter, indicates that it had either chosen not to do such tests or that the tests had revealed fraud.
Despite its having been credited with the Natanz intelligence coup in 2002, the overall record of the MEK on the Iranian nuclear programme has been very poor. The CIA continued to submit intelligence from the Iranian group about alleged Iranian nuclear weapons-related work to the IAEA over the next five years, without identifying the source.
But that intelligence turned out to be unreliable. A senior IAEA official told the Los Angeles Times in February 2007 that, since 2002, “pretty much all the intelligence that has come to us has proved to be wrong.”
Former State Department deputy intelligence director for the Near East and South Asia Wayne White doubts that the MEK has actually had the contacts within the Iranian bureaucracy and scientific community necessary to come up with intelligence such as Natanz and the laptop documents. “I find it very hard to believe that supporters of the MEK haven’t been thoroughly rooted out of the Iranian bureaucracy,” says White. “I think they are without key sources in the Iranian government.”
In her February 2006 report on the laptop documents, the Post’s Linzer said CIA analysts had originally speculated that a “third country, such as Israel, had fabricated the evidence”. They eventually “discounted that theory”, she wrote, without explaining why.
Since 2002, new information has emerged indicating that the MEK did not obtain the 2002 data on Natanz itself but received it from the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Yossi Melman and Meier Javadanfar, who co-authored a book on the Iranian nuclear programme last year, write that they were told by “very senior Israeli Intelligence officials” in late 2006 that Israeli intelligence had known about Natanz for a full year before the Iranian group’s press conference. They explained that they had chosen not to reveal it to the public “because of safety concerns for the sources that provided the information”.
Shahriar Ahy, an adviser to monarchist leader Reza Pahlavi, told journalist Connie Bruck that the detailed information on Natanz had not come from MEK but from “a friendly government, and it had come to more than one opposition group, not only the mujahideen.”
Bruck wrote in the New Yorker on Mar, 16, 2006 that when he was asked if the “friendly government” was Israel, Ahy smiled and said, “The friendly government did not want to be the source of it, publicly. If the friendly government gives it to the U.S. publicly, then it would be received differently. Better to come from an opposition group.”
Israel has maintained a relationship with the MEK since the late 1990s, according to Bruck, including assistance to the organisation in beaming broadcasts by the NCRI from Paris into Iran. An Israeli diplomat confirmed that Israel had found the MEK “useful”, Bruck reported, but the official declined to elaborate.
*Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.