The leak of the document to AP in fact transpired in the way that critics of "intelligence-driven safeguards" fear. According to AP, the document was "leaked by officials from a country critical of Iran's atomic program to bolster their arguments that Iran's nuclear program must be halted before it produces a weapon." In Vienna last week, speculation was rife that the document was leaked by disgruntled Israeli or Western officials to prevent the United States and other countries on the U.N. Security Council from trying to negotiate a solution to the crisis with Iran.
Amano rightly refused to confirm or deny whether the IAEA was familiar with the leaked document. But the episode underscores the need for the IAEA to carefully manage information from third parties, especially information that makes sensitive allegations on the basis of the intelligence findings of member states.
The IAEA is moving forward with State-Level safeguards for sound reasons, having learned that states are willing to risk that violations of their IAEA safeguards agreements would not be detected, and also that states are unwilling to provide the IAEA bigger budgets to keep track of increasing nuclear activity worldwide. But if in the future the IAEA is going to use more types of information to judge states' compliance with their safeguards, governments will cooperate only if they have confidence that the information will be appropriately handled.
Increasingly over the last two decades, the IAEA has gained experience in handling third-party data, and it has put in place a management system to process, evaluate, and protect its information. The less sensitive data is, the easier it is to manage. If the IAEA has questions about the credibility of open-source data, it can directly communicate with the managers of open-source databases. Far, far pricklier is sensitive and classified information from a member state that alleges that another country is engaged in clandestine activities. A country might give the IAEA photos pointing to undisclosed activities somewhere else, but beforehand the evidence will be degraded, making it more difficult to authenticate.
Debate in the media over the meaning of the leaked Iran document probably resembled internal discussion of how to interpret some documentary evidence obtained by the IAEA. Conversations with enough people who might know have persuaded me that the IAEA had likely seen and evaluated the document before it was leaked to the press, and that there was an internal discussion at the IAEA about whether the document was genuine and what it implied.
Amano said last week he is willing to respond to member states' questions concerning the future of the IAEA's safeguards system. Before that happens, the IAEA and P-5 states should try to address and resolve the apparently weighty reservations that Russia has voiced this year. We don't know exactly what the details are. Russia may have specific technical issues with the evolution of IAEA safeguards, but its interventions during closed IAEA meetings suggest it has more principled, lingering concerns about how safeguards judgments will be made in the future.
Ultimately, however, the IAEA's credibility in judging third-party information in critical situations rests upon the shoulders of its director general. In 2003, Amano's predecessor, Mohamed El Baradei, concluded that intelligence asserting that Iraq had restarted clandestine nuclear work was not genuine. In part for that, he and the agency were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Six years later, Amano judged intelligence on Iran to be authentic, and he took a calculated risk in making his findings public. For over a year, these weighty allegations have not been admitted by Iran. How Amano handles them now may be critical to whether the P-5+1 can strike a deal with Iran in the months ahead.
Safeguards is where the rubber hits the road in the fight against nuclear proliferation. Keeping them effective involves unspectacular detail work carried out by technical experts. Over the last decade, specialists have been quietly changing the architecture of the safeguards system, but they haven't explained things to the outside world -- including the IAEA's member states. Some countries now have concerns. Careful management of third-party information is essential for the IAEA's credibility. If the IAEA doesn't carefully and sufficiently address these matters, a coalition of unwilling member states could set back further evolution of safeguards to snuff out future clandestine activities.