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How a Government Report Spread a Questionable Claim About Iran

A study leaked to the media says Iran has 30,000 intelligence operatives. But good luck finding the origins of the figure.

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Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech. Experts are questioning a new U.S. government study on Iran's intelligence ministry. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

Several media outlets reported this month on an alarming finding from a new U.S. government study: Iran’s intelligence ministry, as CNN put it, constitutes “a terror and assassination force 30,000 strong.”

The claim that the intelligence ministry has a whopping 30,000 employees, first reported by a conservative website, spread to other outlets including Wired and the public radio show the Takeaway and landed elsewhere online, even on the intelligence ministry’s Wikipedia page. All cited the new government study, put out by an arm of the Library of Congress called the Federal Research Division.

So how did the government researchers come up with the number? They searched the Internet — and ended up citing an obscure, anonymous website that was simply citing another source.

The trail on the 30,000 figure eventually ends with a Swedish terrorism researcher quoted in a 2008 Christian Science Monitor article. But the researcher, Magnus Ranstorp, said he isn’t sure where the number came from. “I think obviously that it would be an inflated number” of formal employees, said Ranstorp.

We inquired with six Iran experts, and none knew of any evidence for the figure. Some said it might be in the ballpark while others questioned its plausibility.

“Whether the figures emanate from Iran or from western reporting, they are generally exaggerated and either meant as self-aggrandizing propaganda, if self-reported by Iran, or just approximations based on usually scant data or evidence,” said Afshon Ostovar, a senior Middle East analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses who writes frequently on Iran. The number “could be more or less accurate, but there's no way to know.”

Gary Sick, a longtime Iran specialist in and out of government, said the entire Federal Research Division study “has all the appearance of a very cheap piece of propaganda and should not be trusted."

Sick pointed to the study’s use of questionable Internet sources as well as flat-out errors. In one section, for example, the study lays out in detail how “Iran’s constitution defines” the intelligence ministry’s official functions. The problem, as Sick notes: Iran’s constitution doesn’t mention an intelligence ministry, let alone define its functions.

Federal Research Division Chief David Osborne said in an email the report “was leaked to the media without authorization” and declined to comment further “because it is proprietary to the agency for which it was written.”

This is what we know about the 30,000 figure and its provenance:

On the morning of Jan. 3, the conservative Washington Free Beacon ran a story headlined, “Iran Spy Network 30,000 Strong.” The outlet said it had obtained a “64-page unclassified report” on the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and published it with the story.

The Federal Research Service of the Library of Congress, which produced the study, provides “fee for service” research to other government agencies using the resources of the library. The study’s title page names no author but says it was produced under an agreement with an arm of the Pentagon called the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office. (That office did not respond to requests for comment.)

The study flatly states that Iran’s intelligence ministry has “more than 30,000 officers and support personnel.”

But it also hedges. It notes Iranian intelligence is “a difficult subject to study because so little information about it is publicly available.” The study does not claim to feature any original intelligence or reporting. It says its main sources are news websites and Iranian blogs.

“The reliability of blog-based information may be questionable at times,” says the report. “But it seems prudent to evaluate and present it in the absence of alternatives.”

The evening after the report was first published, CNN ran a segment on what it called “troubling new details on a new report of Iran's intelligence service.” The story compared the 30,000 figure to the roughly 100,000 employees in the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies and offices, and went through various attacks over the years attributed to Iranian intelligence.

A CNN spokeswoman said the network “checked the number with sources that led us to feel comfortable that the report was in line with the national security community's understanding."

As support for the 30,000 claim, the study cites a post on a website, iranchannel.org, which aggregates news critical of Iran’s government.

That post, from 2010, turns out to merely excerpt another study from yet another source.

That study, titled “Shariah: The Threat to America,” was put out by the hawkish Center for Security Policy. As the title suggests, it doesn’t focus on Iran but rather the purported threat of Islamic law.

The study briefly mentions that Iran’s intelligence ministry has “up to some 30,000 officers and support staff.” Its source: the 2008 article in the Christian Science Monitor.

That piece refers to Iran’s intelligence ministry having “some 30,000 on the payroll by one count,” which came from Ranstorp, the Swedish terrorism researcher.

Ranstorp told us that while he did not recall citing the figure to the Monitor, it might have originated with Kenneth Katzman, a Mideast specialist with the Congressional Research Service who often writes on Iran.

Katzman told us that the figure did not come from him. He added that 30,000 did not seem “inordinately unreasonable” but that he does not know of evidence supporting it.

Bill Gertz, the Washington Free Beacon reporter who obtained and published the Federal Research Service study, told ProPublica he stands by his story.

"In my 30-plus years in reporting on national security issues, I have found that such unclassified reports often use press reporting of such numbers to avoid having to use classified information,” Gertz said. “I also know that most of the people who write such reports have access to classified information about the subjects they write about and I doubt they would publish a figure that would be contradicted by classified assessments of the number of personnel in the [intelligence ministry]."

Gertz also pointed to another report on Iran, this one produced in 2010 by private intelligence firm Stratfor. But that report says that, as of 2006, Iran’s intelligence ministry had just 15,000 employees. It does not cite a source for the figure.

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UPDATE 1/22/13: An official with the Library of Congress says the report was pulled from circulation

Is anyone shocked that ProPublica is SHOCKED-SHOCKED that a government report spread dubious claims about Iran.

CEOs, politicians and political parties routinely form committees to conduct “research”  that is designed to produce desired results and conclusions.  Those results are then reported to a wire service, where they are parroted by other wire services as news.  Minority committee members who reach the “wrong conclusion” rarely return to such committees.  So whether you’re talking about Iran, vaccines, gun control, global warming or HIV, the funding source dictates the conclusions of the reports, which are then parroted by corrupt universities and a dying media that survives on its own complicity.

Indeed, if ProPublica began to report corruption related to, say, George Soros or Berkeley, they wouldn’t exist.  A story about dubious sources of an Iran intelligence report is a “safe subject” for ProPublica - and the entities that manage and fund them.

Not surprising at all. If you track much of the “conventional wisdom” on Iran back to the original source, you’d see that it has no real basis. Ahmadinejad secretly Jewish? Iranian Jews to be forced to wear yellow badges? Secret documents showing a neutron initiator, or graphs showing nuclear experiments? etc etc..—all just baloney that became “truth” because the claims were simply repeated often enough.

Isn’t Gary Sick the same “longtime Iran specialist” who claimed Bush Sr flew in a specially modified SR-71 blackbird (the only aircraft capable of making Sick’s timeline work) to Paris in 1980 to meet with Iranian negotiators in order to convince them to not release the hostages before the November election between Carter and Reagan? That’s some “expert” you managed to find.

I don’t know how Bush Sr. got to Paris, but I have little doubt that the Reagan campaign people, and Bush Sr. did indeed meet with Iranian officials to arrange a deal.

Did you ever consider it rather strange, and a bit alarming, that the U.S. hostages were released within minutes of Reagan being sworn into office, in January 1981??!!

But of course, it would be treason to do such negotiations, and the main stream media would never investigate such activities.  So too with the eliminating tens of thousands of voters from the voter registration lists, nearly all black, in Florida in the summer of year 2000, under the order of Jeb Bush, doing this little favor for his brother. 

Check out Greg Palast if you want some facts that the media refuse to disclose, as in the intro to his book: THE BEST DEMOCRACY MONEY CAN BUY.

Reality is much more interesting than all the fiction you can come up with.

Mr. Sick claims to be an expert on Iran and he says “Iran’s constitution doesn’t mention an intelligence ministry, let alone define its functions.” He probably needs to ask a translator to read the Iranian constitution in regards to the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. He can update his information by looking at the following link. http://hvm.ir/lawdetailnews.asp?id=741
By the way, If the ministry had 15,000 officers by 2006, 30000 officers sounds reseanable since iran has developed its activities around the world. In addition, it has to deal with people inside Iran as well.

David Kauber,

Such things do happen. A similar game was even played by France with Iran over their election. Another by France with Pakistan. Politicians do all kinds of stuff to get their election wins. In fact there are indications that the hostage crisis had been done on instigation of other powers and through MKO and others.

Reza,

Well, if the translation is right then it means you are wrong. The link you have provided is not for constitution but rather the law passed by Iranian parliament. Please learn the difference between constitution and law. The article is talking about constitution and the Iranian constitution does not mention any intelligence agency.

@Reza - The Islamic Republic of Iran Ministry of Information has been around for over six hundred years. How can this be?

Bill Gertz was a frequent guest of Brian Lamb’s Washington Journal during C-SPAN’s 1991 televisingof the HRC hearings—Lamb being fully aware that the Hill & Knowlton story was a lie—the Iraqi Baby Incubator Hoax engineered by California congressmanTom Lantos and his Human Rights Caucus. Then, before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Gertz was on WJ peddling his lies that Saddam Hussein had mined his oil fields with “chemical,biological, nuclear cocktail” bombs. Check out Gertz’s Counter Jihdad Report online.

An interesting question comes to mind, here.  We had no difficulty invading Afghanistan.  We moved on Iraq before anybody had digested the “evidence.”  We bombed Libya without hesitation.  We’ve had random incursions (that we don’t talk about) into Pakistan for a long time.

What’s so special about Iran that the government and its industry allies are working so hard to convince us that “we need to stop them”?

I don’t mean that we should do so.  I mean that the effort put into making the (trumped-up, as far as I can tell) case seems very much out of character and inconsistent.

This is the same CNN with WMD in Irak which was given to US govt.These senders are corrupt and get money from US aministration.
There is no doubt that Iran is on the list of Israelis and will continue Jewish Media to execute Iran and thus Israel is totally to take the Hitler atrocities in the middle east with open hands which they are already doing.
God bless america for their attrocities on Muslism around the world and as a killer state.

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

Jan. 15, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

Hey Pro Publica.  How come you took down the post by the crazy Czech? He was the hands-down winner in this paranoia/conspiracy game.  All these other folk are just playing for second place.

abinico warez

Jan. 15, 2013, 6:56 p.m.

Propaganda does not be based on fact.

No duh, most of the stories about Iran are negative, because they are trying to shape public’s opinion.

The United States military-industrial complex needs Iran and can not afford to see it go away.  For the last 75 years or so the corporate mafia and its military puppets have carefully constructed “evil doers” who, with super human strength and cunning, have threatened this peace loving nation.  Of course the only way to deal with these “devils” is to arm third-world dictators with American-made weapons.  Its fascinating.  No sooner does one go away than another arises out of nowhere.  Even more so, the image of these threats that is promoted by our “leaders” never changes.

James M. Fitzsimmons

Jan. 16, 2013, 11:48 a.m.

Iran does not need 30,000 Intelligence Officers, they have the New York Times for foreign counter intelligence. Read, for example, the NYT’s Chief Washington Correspondent’s book, Confront and Conceal published in 2012. The book reads like the author sat in on the administration’s NSC meetings and took notes about sensitive operations including Stuxnut.

@ghouri: so far the only country that openly says it wants to wipe the other off the face of the earth is Iran. Their leaders have said time and again that they want to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.

Geez! Is this where the CIA gets its information. You can say almost anything onn the internet and someone will quote it as a fact, especially if it supports what they already believe. Did you hear that they found Martians on Mars with that latest exploration? Pass it on!

Itzhak, that has turned out to be a not-quite-entirely-accurate translation for a large number of reasons.  See the following article from the New York Times, who very rarely comes down on the side of Iran:

nytimes.com/2006/06/11/weekinreview/11bronner.html?_r=0

Mr. [Jonathan] Steele added that neither Khomeini nor Mr. Ahmadinejad suggested that Israel’s “vanishing” was imminent or that Iran would be involved in bringing it about.

@John; even the article you quoted does not really conclusively rule out that option, certainly not when it states that Iran’s own official translations state it. So wrangling words is fine and dandy when it doesn’t apply to your country, but do you really think it should not be taken seriously when it’s in their official translations?

Also, consider that Iran is a strong supporter of both hezbollah and hamas, and both of those, as part of their agenda seek the complete destruction of Israel, so don’t try and tell me that this is a not-quite-entirely-accurate translation. their actions and show of support speaks louder than words.

If the French said that the USa should be swept away from the pages of history, and started supplying weapons and expertise to militants and terrorists acting against the USA, do you really think the USA will say, oh, it’s just a poor translation? fuck no!

Mohsin Syedain

Jan. 19, 2013, 1:40 p.m.

Itzhak E, reading through your comments it seems you are thrilled that Iran, supposedly, threatened to wipe out Israel off the map and you would have been very disappointed if it had not. Why else would you try and support you remarks with the Hezbollah and Hamas argument?

And don’t forget how Israel, the country is continuing to colonize Palestine’s lands, contrary to United Nations’ #242 declaration. 

I understand in Israel, there are more people making noise about this illegal activity of their country, than in the USA, where the Israel-lobby has our politicians cowed into fear of telling the truth and dealing with this lawless country, Israel.  But of course the US military industrial complex makes lots of money($$$$$$$$$$$$$$) in selling weapons to Israel for Israel to defend/promote its illegal activities.

People who tell these truths are labeled anti-semites if they be not Jews; and if they are Jews they are called “self-loathing Jews”.  Either way, telling the truth is forbidden by these who persecute others.  As with people who have been abused when children and then who grow up to themselves abuse children — so it is with Israel.

rnd technologies

Jan. 23, 2013, 3:49 a.m.

Good thought.