The debate about whether Iran has constructed a clandestine centrifuge program drives me nuts.

You mean other than the one we already found?

And by we, I mean the United States—or at least its intelligence community. As I understand the sequence of events, the United States—knowing full well that Iran had a clandestine centrifuge program—watched Iran dig two MASSIVE HOLES near Natanz (see the big picture), then ratted the Iranians out to the IAEA. About the same time, someone leaked that information to an Iranian dissident group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which then released the second-hand dope in a press conference where they got the details wrong.

This is something that has come up in the comments, so I think I should take the time to walk a timeline using what information we have. (Your grandkids will know for sure, when this stuff gets declassified.)

The whole public debate did begin in August 2002, when NCRI identified Natanz as an undeclared nuclear facility (correct!) responsible for the production of “nuclear fuel production” (not so much).

In December 2002, however, Mark Hibbs reported (no online copy) that the United States had briefed the IAEA on the purpose and location of Natanz before the NCRI allegations, at the optimal time to buy maximally incriminating satellite photographs:

For about a year, analysts at U.S. intelligence agencies and national laboratories, in part based on high-resolution reconnaissance imagery, and supported by procurement information, have been hardening suspicions that Iran was building a clandestine uranium enrichment plant in Natanz and a heavy water production facility in Arak, Western officials told NuclearFuel.

[snip]

About six months ago, sources said, a limited amount of crucial information from the U.S. findings, including the precise geographical coordinates of the sites, was provided to the IAEA. Officials there said the agency then tasked a handful of Vienna personnel to examine the data using commercial satellite photos of the two locations.

Mark Hibbs, “U.S. Briefed Suppliers Group in October on Suspected Iranian Enrichment Plant,” Nuclear Fuel 27:26, December 23, 2002, p. 1.

(ElBaradei confirmed the six month bit to AP’s Ali Akbar Dareini in December, as well.)

In December 2002, ISIS released those satellite photographs of Natanz, explaining that “it is unlikely that the site contains a fuel fabrication facility, but it possibly has a uranium enrichment plant … most likely … a gas centrifuge facility.” ISIS’s Corey Hinderstein, speaking on CNN, was the first person to publicly identify Natanz as a gas centrifuge facility.

Hibbs’ account and the correct identification by ISIS, however, didn’t seem to dislodge the conventional wisdom that NCRI had discoverd the sites, rather than merely passing along second hand information.

In February 2004, former DCI George Tenet tried a more direct approach, claiming it was “flat wrong” that the IC was surprised. In May 2005, Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball cited “current and former senior U.S. national-security officials” claiming athat “all the major revelations MEK publicly claims … were reported in classified form—and from other sources—to U.S. policymakers before MEK made them public.”

Part of the problem is that US intelligence sources didn’t want to say how they knew—and, thus, how much we knew—so the story that NCRI ratted out the Iranians persisted. This summer, though, I think the last piece of the puzzle appeared.

In The One Percent Doctrine, Ron Suskind confirmed
that US intelligence had flipped Urs Tinner —a member of the Khan network—in the 1990s and had allowed him to remain in place to identify Khan’s customers.

This also helps explain why the Clinton Administration was so persistent in its (successful) efforts to cut off foreign assistance to Iran’s uranium conversion facility at Esfahan, as well as as series of pre-August 2002 721 reports stating that “Iran has continued to attempt using its civilian nuclear energy program to justify its efforts to establish domestically or otherwise acquire assorted nuclear fuel-cycle capabilities … well suited to support fissile material production for a weapons program …”