By Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 7, 2007
Senate Republicans are planning to call for a congressional commission to investigate the conclusions of the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran as well as the specific intelligence that went into it, according to congressional sources.
The move is the first official challenge, but it comes amid growing backlash from conservatives and neoconservatives unhappy about the assessment that Iran halted a clandestine nuclear weapons program four years ago. It reflects how quickly the NIE has become politicized, with critics even going after the analysts who wrote it, and shows a split among Republicans.
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said he plans to introduce legislation next week to establish a commission modeled on a congressionally mandated group that probed a disputed 1995 intelligence estimate on the emerging missile threat to the United States over the next 15 years.
"Iran is one of the greatest threats in the world today. Getting the intelligence right is absolutely critical, not only on Iran's capability but its intent. So now there is a huge question raised, and instead of politicizing that report, let's have a fresh set of eyes -- objective, yes -- look at it," he said in an interview.
Ensign's proposal calls for Senate leaders to put an equal number of Republicans and Democrats on a panel to study the NIE and report back in six months. "There are a lot of people out there who do question [the NIE]. There is a huge difference between the 2005 and 2007 estimates," he said. The 2005 intelligence estimate reported that Iran was still working on a clandestine military program, and the new assessment basically says the previous judgment was wrong on a key point.
"If it's inaccurate, it could result in very serious damage to legitimate American policy," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). As recently as July, he noted, intelligence officials said in congressional testimony that they had a high degree of confidence that Iran was intent on developing the world's deadliest weapon. "We need to update our conclusions, but this is a substantial change," he said in an interview.
While other NIEs have been the subject of intense criticism -- most recently the 2002 assessment on Iraq's program to develop weapons of mass destruction -- critics of the new assessment are modeling their response after the clash over a 1995 NIE on ballistic missile threats. That document concluded that no country other than the major declared nuclear powers "would develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile over the next 15 years that will threaten the contiguous 48 states or Canada."
President Bill Clinton used the NIE to veto a fiscal 1996 defense authorization bill that would have required deployment by 2003 of a missile defense system capable of defending all 50 states, a project costing tens of billions of dollars.
But a congressionally mandated commission, headed by Donald H. Rumsfeld, who would become President Bush's defense secretary, concluded in 1998 that the United States "might have little or no warning before operational deployment of a ballistic missile by a hostile Third World country." Its conclusions formed the basis for the Bush administration's push for a missile defense system.
Although administration officials say they are very comfortable with the intelligence that produced the new NIE, conservative commentators challenge its veracity. Norman Podhoretz, a commentator who has advocated air strikes on Iranian sites, said he does not think the NIE is "very credible because it is a 180-degree turn in two years based on new discoveries. I don't see any strong reason why in two years they won't reverse themselves."
Podhoretz especially faulted the estimate for guessing at Iranian intentions about a weapon while not significantly changing the estimate for when Tehran could acquire a weapon: "The summary strikes me as more of a political document as distinguished from an intelligence document." He said a review of the intelligence by a special commission is "a very good idea" because it is "entirely possible" that others would come to different conclusions.
Critics of the NIE have seized on the fact that career government officials who had battled with conservatives earlier in the administration on policy issues have now migrated to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which coordinated the writing of the estimate.
"The problem is not the nature of the intelligence, it's the nature of the presentation. This NIE was presented with a clear intention to deceive and to redirect foreign policy," wrote Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, in an e-mail. "I have no doubt that these people believe they are protecting the nation from the President, but our constitution doesn't contemplate the non-proliferation center at the ODNI governing U.S. national security policy."
Meanwhile, the White House sought to tamp down accusations that Bush misled the public about when and how much he knew about the new intelligence. During his news conference this week, Bush said he was told in August by the director of national intelligence that there was new information about Iran, but not what the new information was.
Press secretary Dana Perino said yesterday that Bush meant he was told the gist of the new intelligence -- that Iran had had a covert nuclear weapons program but had suspended it -- but he was not given details, pending a deeper assessment of the data. "The president could have been more precise in that language," she said, "but the president was being truthful."