Thursday, August 24, 2006
WASHINGTON, Aug. 23 — Some senior Bush administration officials and top Republican lawmakers are voicing anger that American spy agencies have not issued more ominous warnings about the threats that they say Iran presents to the United States.
Some policy makers have accused intelligence agencies of playing down Iran’s role in Hezbollah’s recent attacks against Israel and overestimating the time it would take for Iran to build a nuclear weapon.
The complaints, expressed privately in recent weeks, surfaced in a Congressional report about Iran released Wednesday. They echo the tensions that divided the administration and the Central Intelligence Agency during the prelude to the war in Iraq.
The criticisms reflect the views of some officials inside the White House and the Pentagon who advocated going to war with Iraq and now are pressing for confronting Iran directly over its nuclear program and ties to terrorism, say officials with knowledge of the debate.
The dissonance is surfacing just as the intelligence agencies are overhauling their procedures to prevent a repeat of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate — the faulty assessment that in part set the United States on the path to war with Iraq.
The new report, from the House Intelligence Committee, led by Representative Peter Hoekstra, Republican of Michigan, portrayed Iran as a growing threat and criticized American spy agencies for cautious assessments about Iran’s weapons programs. “Intelligence community managers and analysts must provide their best analytical judgments about Iranian W.M.D. programs and not shy away from provocative conclusions or bury disagreements in consensus assessments,” the report said, using the abbreviation for weapons of mass destruction like nuclear arms.
Some policy makers also said they were displeased that American spy agencies were playing down intelligence reports — including some from the Israeli government — of extensive contacts recently between Hezbollah and members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. “The people in the community are unwilling to make judgment calls and don’t know how to link anything together,” one senior United States official said.
“We’re not in a court of law,” he said. “When they say there is ‘no evidence,’ you have to ask them what they mean, what is the meaning of the term ‘evidence’?”
The criticisms do not appear to be focused on any particular agency, like the C.I.A., the Defense Intelligence Agency or the State Department’s intelligence bureau, which sometimes differ in their views.
Officials from across the government — including from within the Bush administration, Congress and American intelligence agencies — spoke for this article on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a debate over classified intelligence information. Some officials said that given all that had happened over the last four years, it was only appropriate that the intelligence agencies took care to avoid going down the same path that led the United States to war with Iraq.
“Analysts were burned pretty badly during the run-up to the war in Iraq,” said Representative Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. “I’m not surprised that some in the intelligence community are a bit gun-shy about appearing to be war mongering.”
Several intelligence officials said that American spy agencies had made assessments in recent weeks that despite established ties between Iran and Hezbollah and a well-documented history of Iran arming the organization, there was no credible evidence to suggest either that Iran ordered the Hezbollah raid that touched off the recent fighting or that Iran was directly controlling attacks against Israel.
“There are no provable signs of Iranian direction on the ground,” said one intelligence official in Washington. “Nobody should think that Hezbollah is a remote-controlled entity.” American military assessments have broadly echoed this view, say people who maintain close ties to military intelligence officers.
“Does Iran profit from all of this? Yes,” said Gen. Wayne A. Downing Jr., the retired former commander of the Special Operations Command and a White House counterterrorism adviser during President Bush’s first term. “But is Iran pulling the strings? The guys I’m talking to say, ‘no.’ ”
Many senior Bush administration officials have long been dismissive of the work of the intelligence agencies. Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pentagon set up an office led by Douglas J. Feith, the Defense Department’s third-ranking civilian official at the time, that sifted through raw intelligence to look for links between terrorist networks and governments like Iraq’s.
In the months before the Iraq war, Vice President Dick Cheney made repeated trips to the C.I.A. and asked analysts pointed questions about their conclusions that Iraq had no direct ties to Al Qaeda. Both the Pentagon office and Mr. Cheney’s visits were roundly criticized, which is why officials said that policy makers were now being careful about circumventing the intelligence agencies to seek alternate analyses.
During his confirmation hearings in May, the director of the C.I.A., Gen. Michael V. Hayden, said he had been “uncomfortable” with the work of the Pentagon intelligence office.
The House Intelligence Committee report released Wednesday was written primarily by Republican staff members on the committee, and privately some Democrats criticized the report for using innuendo and unsubstantiated assertions to inflate the threat that Iran posed to the United States.
The report’s cover page shows a picture of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran speaking at a lectern that bears the message “The World Without Zionism.”
Page 3 of the report lists several public comments from Mr. Ahmadinejad, including his statement, “The annihilation of the Zionist regime will come. . . . Israel must be wiped off the map.”
Earlier this year, the intelligence agencies put new procedures in place to help avoid the type of analysis that was contained in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq and to prevent another “Curveball” — the code name of the Iraqi source who fed the United States faulty intelligence about Iraq’s biological weapons program. “I think that the intelligence community is being appropriately cautious,” said John E. McLaughlin, a former director of central intelligence.
“I think that what is going on is that people are holding themselves to a higher standard of evidence because of Iraq.”
Thomas Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, said analysts now had much more information about the sources of raw intelligence coming from the field.
“Analysts have to know more about the sources than was generally the case before the Iraq estimate,” Mr. Fingar said.
Analysts also are required to include in their reports more information about the chain of logic that led them to their conclusions about sensitive topics like Iran, North Korea and global terrorism — “showing your work,” as Mr. Fingar put it.
At the same time, Mr. Fingar dismissed the notion that intelligence analysts should try merely to connect random intelligence findings. “As a 40-year analyst, I’m offended by the notion of ‘connecting dots,’ ’’he said. “If you had enough monkeys you could do that.”
The consensus of the intelligence agencies is that Iran is still years away from building a nuclear weapon. Such an assessment angers some in Washington, who say that it ignores the prospect that Iran could be aided by current nuclear powers like North Korea. “When the intelligence community says Iran is 5 to 10 years away from a nuclear weapon, I ask: ‘If North Korea were to ship them a nuke tomorrow, how close would they be then?” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives.
“The intelligence community is dedicated to predicting the least dangerous world possible,” he said.
Some veterans of the intelligence battles that preceded the Iraq war see the debate as familiar and are critical of efforts to create hard links based on murky intelligence.“It reflects a certain way of looking at the world — that all evil is traceable to the capitals of certain states,” said Paul R. Pillar, who until last October oversaw American intelligence assessments about the Middle East. “And that, in my view, is a very incorrect way of interpreting the security challenges we face."