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."
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.
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.