By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2006
A key House committee issued a stinging critique of U.S. intelligence on Iran yesterday, charging that the CIA and other agencies lack "the ability to acquire essential information necessary to make judgments" on Tehran's nuclear program, its intentions or even its ties to terrorism.
The 29-page report, principally written by a Republican staff member on the House intelligence committee who holds a hard-line view on Iran, fully backs the White House position that the Islamic republic is moving forward with a nuclear weapons program and that it poses a significant danger to the United States. But it chides the intelligence community for not providing enough direct evidence to support that assertion.
"American intelligence agencies do not know nearly enough about Iran's nuclear weapons program" to help policymakers at a critical time, the report's authors say. Information "regarding potential Iranian chemical weapons and biological weapons programs is neither voluminous nor conclusive," and little evidence has been gathered to tie Iran to al-Qaeda and to the recent fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, they say.
The report relies exclusively on publicly available documents. Its authors did not interview intelligence officials. Still, it warns the intelligence community to avoid the mistakes made regarding weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war, noting that Iran could easily be engaged in "a denial and deception campaign to exaggerate progress on its nuclear program as Saddam Hussein apparently did concerning his WMD programs."
"We want to avoid another 'slam dunk,' " Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) said in an interview yesterday, explaining why the staff report was made public before it had been approved by the full committee. "We think it's important for the American people to understand the kinds of pressures that we are facing and to increase the American public's understanding of Iran as a threat."
Former CIA director George J. Tenet had called prewar intelligence on banned weapons a "slam dunk," but no such arms were ever found.
The House panel's report comes at a time when the Bush administration is scrambling for leverage in its effort to force Iran to suspend its nuclear program. On Tuesday, Tehran rejected a U.N. Security Council resolution requiring it to halt its uranium-enrichment work.
For weeks, the White House has said that it would push for international sanctions if Iran failed to comply with the council's demands. But none of its allies spoke of sanctions yesterday, a day after Iran said it was willing to engage in serious discussions with the United States -- but not if it had to stop its nuclear program first.
The State Department issued a terse response to the Iranian offer yesterday, saying it fell "short" of Iran's obligations but making no mention of sanctions.
Some Republicans privately oppose President Bush's current policy of potential engagement with Iran and believe it is crumbling in the face of European reluctance to impose strict measures.
Jamal Ware, spokesman for the House intelligence committee, said three staff members wrote the report, but he did not dispute that the principal author was Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA officer who had been a special assistant to John R. Bolton, the administration's former point man on Iran at the State Department. Bolton had been highly influential in the crafting of a tough policy that rejected talks with Tehran.
Bolton was appointed ambassador to the United Nations last year, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice changed course when she came to the State Department, choosing instead to support direct European negotiations with Iran. She said the United States would join those talks if Iran agreed to suspend its nuclear work.
Noting "significant gaps" in U.S. intelligence, Fleitz's report suggests that the United States could not effectively engage in talks with Tehran.
Rep. Rush D. Holt (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee that prepared the report, said he agreed to forward it to the full committee because it highlights the difficulties in gathering intelligence on Iran. But he added that the report was not "prepared and reviewed in a way that we can rely on."
The administration has not attributed its assertions about Iran's weapons program to U.S. intelligence, as it had done about Iraq's in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion. Instead, it has pointed to years of Iranian concealment and has questioned why a country with as much oil as Iran would need a huge nuclear energy program.
The House report notes several years of findings by international nuclear inspectors that point to the possibility of a nuclear weapons program and suggests that more U.S. intelligence resources should be devoted to finding proof.
"Although Iran . . . with active denial and deception efforts, is a difficult target for intelligence analysis and collection, it is imperative that the U.S. Intelligence Community devote significant resources against this vital threat," the report says.
The report suggests seven areas in which the intelligence community can improve its analysis and collection of information, and it specifically criticizes the office of the director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte. The report says Negroponte needs to "clearly identify his goals for improving Iran-related collection and analysis so members of the Community know what they are supposed to achieve."
John Callahan, a spokesman for Negroponte, said the office is already "taking steps along the lines the committee has recommended and looks forward to working with members and staff to continue to make progress as we address the challenges Iran poses."