By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006
U.N. inspectors investigating Iran's nuclear program angrily complained to the Bush administration and to a Republican congressman yesterday about a recent House committee report on Iran's capabilities, calling parts of the document "outrageous and dishonest" and offering evidence to refute its central claims.
Officials of the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency said in a letter that the report contained some "erroneous, misleading and unsubstantiated statements." The letter, signed by a senior director at the agency, was addressed to Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, which issued the report. A copy was hand-delivered to Gregory L. Schulte, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA in Vienna.
The IAEA openly clashed with the Bush administration on pre-war assessments of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Relations all but collapsed when the agency revealed that the White House had based some allegations about an Iraqi nuclear program on forged documents.
After no such weapons were found in Iraq, the IAEA came under additional criticism for taking a cautious approach on Iran, which the White House says is trying to build nuclear weapons in secret. At one point, the administration orchestrated a campaign to remove the IAEA's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei. It failed, and he won the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
Yesterday's letter, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post, was the first time the IAEA has publicly disputed U.S. allegations about its Iran investigation. The agency noted five major errors in the committee's 29-page report, which said Iran's nuclear capabilities are more advanced than either the IAEA or U.S. intelligence has shown.
Among the committee's assertions is that Iran is producing weapons-grade uranium at its facility in the town of Natanz. The IAEA called that "incorrect," noting that weapons-grade uranium is enriched to a level of 90 percent or more. Iran has enriched uranium to 3.5 percent under IAEA monitoring.
When the congressional report was released last month, Hoekstra said his intent was "to help increase the American public's understanding of Iran as a threat." Spokesman Jamal Ware said yesterday that Hoekstra will respond to the IAEA letter.
Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), a committee member, said the report was "clearly not prepared in a manner that we can rely on." He agreed to send it to the full committee for review, but the Republicans decided to make it public before then, he said in an interview.
The report was never voted on or discussed by the full committee. Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the vice chairman, told Democratic colleagues in a private e-mail that the report "took a number of analytical shortcuts that present the Iran threat as more dire -- and the Intelligence Community's assessments as more certain -- than they are."
Privately, several intelligence officials said the committee report included at least a dozen claims that were either demonstrably wrong or impossible to substantiate. Hoekstra's office said the report was reviewed by the office of John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence.
Negroponte's spokesman, John Callahan, said in a statement that his office "reviewed the report and provided its response to the committee on July 24, '06." He did not say whether it had approved or challenged any of the claims about Iran's capabilities.
"This is like prewar Iraq all over again," said David Albright, a former nuclear inspector who is president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. "You have an Iranian nuclear threat that is spun up, using bad information that's cherry-picked and a report that trashes the inspectors."
The committee report, written by a single Republican staffer with a hard-line position on Iran, chastised the CIA and other agencies for not providing evidence to back assertions that Iran is building nuclear weapons.
It concluded that the lack of intelligence made it impossible to support talks with Tehran. Democrats on the committee saw it as an attempt from within conservative Republican circles to undermine Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has agreed to talk with the Iranians under certain conditions.
The report's author, Fredrick Fleitz, is a onetime CIA officer and special assistant to John R. Bolton, the administration's former point man on Iran at the State Department. Bolton, who is now ambassador to the United Nations, had been highly influential during President Bush's first term in drawing up a tough policy that rejected talks with Tehran.
Among the allegations in Fleitz's Iran report is that ElBaradei removed a senior inspector from the Iran investigation because he raised "concerns about Iranian deception regarding its nuclear program." The agency said the inspector has not been removed.
A suggestion that ElBaradei had an "unstated" policy that prevented inspectors from telling the truth about Iran's program was particularly "outrageous and dishonest," according to the IAEA letter, which was signed by Vilmos Cserveny, the IAEA's director for external affairs and a former Hungarian ambassador.
Hoekstra's committee is working on a separate report about North Korea that is also being written principally by Fleitz. A draft of the report, provided to The Post, includes several assertions about North Korea's weapons program that the intelligence officials said they cannot substantiate, including one that Pyongyang is already enriching uranium.
The intelligence community believes North Korea is trying to acquire an enrichment capability but has no proof that an enrichment facility has been built, the officials said.