A Brave and Visionary Horseman Rides off into the Sunset
Because the brave and good of the intelligence world so rarely win public acclaim outside works of fiction, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and military experts feel moved to devote some words of tribute to the courage, vision and steadfastness of Finnish nuclear engineer Olli Heinonen, who retired aged 73 on July 1 as Deputy Director General, Head of the Department of Safeguards, at the International Atomic Energy Agency – the IAEA, a job he held with great distinction for five years.
It must be said that were it not for his dedication to his highly sensitive task, Iran would by now have wangled its way to an operational nuclear weapon, Syria a nuclear reactor for producing plutonium and the Iranian-Syrian-North Korean alliance would be cock of the Middle East-Persian Gulf roost.
Because Heinonen refused to be cowed into cutting corners or dancing to any piper's tunes, Iran has only now reached the point where it can begin building atomic bombs, while Syria is still pondering whether or not to rebuild the reactor Israel demolished in September 2007.
As an intelligence wizard, he stuck his neck out by stating publicly that there's no such thing as accurate, complete intelligence data on any issue, including nuclear matters – even when the most up-to-date electronic tricks and accomplished human information-gathering tricksters are employed. Heinonen licensed governments and international organizations – or even spy agencies – to act on hunches and intuition based on partial intelligence input. A combination of intuition, audacity and knowledge were his recipe for a new brand of intelligence-based policy-making that could be workable in a world dominated by technology and high finance.
The 2005 American Documents on Iran
For his audacity, the Finnish engineer was put down by every government and intelligence agency in the West as a dangerous amateur of the cloak-and-dagger arts. Even so, as Head of the IAEA's Department of Safeguards, he doggedly applied his principles to a target he regarded as the most dangerous of all, Iran's hole-in-the corner nuclear program and, later, after Israel bombed Syria's concealed plutonium reactor in late 2007, to Syria's nuclear aspirations.
In July 2005, the month Heinonen took up his position with the nuclear watchdog, the Bush administration first briefed its top officials on confidential data demonstrating that Iran's sole motivation in developing a nuclear program was to acquire an atomic bomb arsenal.
The synchronicity of the two events was no coincidence.
Aware that Heinonen had joined the IAEA team, Washington counted on a receptive audience when its experts flashed on a screen and spread over the conference table at the top of the IAEA Vienna skyscraper overlooking the Danube selections from more than a thousand pages recording Iranian computer simulations and experiments.
The Americans claimed the pages were taken from a laptop computer. To protect their source, they have never to this day revealed where the laptop came from, admitting only that it reached their hands in mid-2004 from a source in Iran said to have received it from a second individual, now believed dead.
However, the documentation the Americans produced then attested to Iran's long and systematic effort to design a nuclear warhead. The data appeared to have come from multiple sources in Iran at different periods; it was detailed and generally consistent.
Heinonen's innovation: Put the burden of proof on Iran
Yet an overwhelming group of delegates, some from the Middle East and the Far East, some from France and Germany, as well as the nuclear watchdog professionals clustered around Director-General Mohammed ElBaradei (since retired), decided the data was fabricated by Western or Israeli intelligence – or a joint product of the two.
The genuineness of the evidence the Bush administration presented to the nuclear watchdog in July 2005 is still the subject of controversy, one of the most heated in contemporary intelligence circles.
The naysayers gained support – predictably from Tehran, which pointed to missing official stamps from government receivers and the lack of secrecy classifications as proofs of forgery.
The Finnish engineer kept out of the dispute and refrained from ranging on either side, never identifying either with the American claims or the Iranian bid to discredit them.
He argued that whether or not the evidence was fake or genuine was immaterial to the state of Iran's nuclear program, because all intelligence data is bound to be flawed in one way or another. The controversy, he said, was therefore counter-productive.
Instead of being bogged down in the documents' minutiae, Heinonen advised examining the overall picture. He then came forward with a revolutionary approach. Instead of the international monitors having to struggle with the cheating and runarounds which the Iranians were so good at in order to prove the Islamic Republic guilty of conducting an underhand military nuclear program, why not put the burden of proof on Iran to convince everyone there were no dodgy practices and its nuclear program was pure as the driven snow?
This proposition so incensed DG ElBaradei that the entire nuclear agency split into two hostile factions: The Director-General's, which became known as the Egyptian Camp, and Heinonen's – the Finnish Camp.
A counter-report correcting the omissions of the official report
For every report ElBaradei delivered to the agency's board of directors, the Finish Camp released to the news agencies – from "anonymous diplomatic sources in Vienna" – a counter-report containing incriminating disclosures of Iran's nuclear activities sanitized from the director-general's briefing or shelved.
There was no way the Director-General could shut the Finnish executive up.
As Head of the Department of Safeguards, Heinonen was exclusively responsible for monitoring operations in Iran and other countries. His authority was outside ElBaradei's control, although he routinely tried to sabotage the Finnish expert's work.
Their personal animosity burst into the open after Israel's bombing of the Syrian-Iranian-North Korean plutonium reactor in September 2007.
The Director-General condemned Israel for acting unilaterally without first presenting its intelligence data to the IAEA. He implied that his agency was preparing a resolution acquitting Syria of military nuclear activity for lack of proof.
Heinonen fought back hard to stop ElBaradei venting his anger in this way. With US support, he got an IAEA team of expert investigators into Syria. They applied to Damascus the rule of thumb used for Tehran: Syria was challenged to provide facts and explanations to prove it was not developing fuel for nuclear weapons instead of requiring the international community to prove its culpability.
To this day, Syria has never provided answers to Heinonen's questions.
After ElBaradei's retirement this year to Cairo and Heinonen's retirement this month to his home in Helsinki, it is too soon to say whether the Egyptian and Finnish camps will disband or continue their dispute.
As for, the IAEA's new director-general, Yukio Amano of Japan, the first impression of his performance shows him to be on the whole less than totally independent.
It will be interesting to see how he handles the issue of the "Iran Documents" US laid before the agency in 2005 and Syria's failure to explain its undercover nuclear activities.