Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Data Is Lacking on Iran's Arms, U.S. Panel Says

Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt, The New York Times:
A commission due to report to President Bush this month will describe American intelligence on Iran as inadequate to allow firm judgments about Iran's weapons programs, according to people who have been briefed on the panel's work.

The report comes as intelligence agencies prepare a new formal assessment on Iran, and follows a 14-month review by the panel, which Mr. Bush ordered last year to assess the quality of overall intelligence about the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. read more

The Bush administration has been issuing increasingly sharp warnings about what it says are Iran's efforts to build nuclear weapons. The warnings have been met with firm denials in Tehran, which says its nuclear program is intended purely for civilian purposes.

The most complete recent statement by American agencies about Iran and its weapons, in an unclassified report sent to Congress in November by Porter J. Goss, director of central intelligence, said Iran continued "to vigorously pursue indigenous programs to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons."

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been conducting inspections in Iran for two years, has said it has not found evidence of any weapons program. But the agency has also expressed skepticism about Iran's insistence that its nuclear activities are strictly civilian.

The nine-member bipartisan presidential panel, led by Laurence Silberman, a retired federal judge, and Charles S. Robb, a former governor and senator from Virginia, had unrestricted access to the most senior people and the most sensitive documents of the intelligence agencies.

In its report, the panel is also expected to be sharply critical of American intelligence on North Korea. But in interviews, people who have been briefed on the commission's deliberations and conclusions said they regarded the record on Iran as particularly worrisome.

One person who described the panel's deliberations and conclusions characterized American intelligence on Iran as "scandalous," given the importance and relative openness of the country, compared with such an extreme case as North Korea.

That person and others who have been briefed on the panel's work would not be more specific in describing the inadequacies. But former government officials who are experts on Iran say that while American intelligence agencies have devoted enormous resources to Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979, they have had little success in the kinds of human spying necessary to understand Iranian decision-making.

Among the major setbacks, former intelligence officials have said, was the successful penetration in the late 1980's by Iranian authorities of the principal American spy network inside the country, which was being run from a C.I.A. station in Frankfurt. The arrests of reported American spies was known at the time, but the impact on American intelligence reverberated as late as the mid-1990's.

A spokesman for the commission, Carl Kropf, declined to comment about any conclusions reached.

The last National Intelligence Estimate on Iran was completed in 2001 and is now being reassessed, according to American intelligence officials. As a first step, the National Intelligence Council, which produces the estimates and reports to Mr. Goss, is expected this spring to circulate a classified update that will focus on Iran and its weapons.

In Congress, the Senate Intelligence Committee has recently begun its own review into the quality of intelligence on Iran, in what the Republican and Democratic leaders of the panel have described as an effort to pre-empt any repeat of the experience in Iraq, where prewar American assertions about illicit weapons proved to be mistaken. But Congressional officials say the language of some recent intelligence reports on Iran has included more caveats and qualifications than in the past, in what they described as the agencies' own response to the Iraq experience.

In testimony last month, intelligence officials from several agencies told Congress that they were convinced that Tehran wanted nuclear weapons, but also said the uncertainty played to Iran's advantage.

"The Iranians don't necessarily have to have a successful nuclear program in order to have the deterrent value," said Carol A. Rodley, the State Department's second-ranking top intelligence official. "They merely have to convince us, others and their neighbors that they do."

The commission's findings will also include recommendations for further structural changes among intelligence agencies, to build on the legislation Mr. Bush signed in December that sets up a new director of national intelligence. Among the proposals discussed but apparently rejected was the idea of consolidating the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency into a single Defense Department operation that would integrate what are now divided responsibilities for satellite reconnaissance and eavesdropping operations.

The panel is to send a classified report to Mr. Bush by March 31. The panel is expected to issue an unclassified version at about the same time, but it is not clear whether the criticism of intelligence on Iran will be included in that public document, the people familiar with the panel's deliberations said.

In a television interview in February on Fox News, Vice President Dick Cheney described the work of the commission as "one of the most important things that's going forward today."

In the case of Iraq, a National Intelligence Estimate completed in October 2002 was among the assessments that expressed certainty that Baghdad possessed chemical and biological weapons and was rebuilding its nuclear program. Those assessments were wrong, and a report last year by the chief American weapons inspector found that Iraq had destroyed what remained of its illicit arsenal nearly a decade before the United States invasion.

A report last summer by the Senate committee concluded that the certainty of prewar assessments on Iraq had not been supported by the intelligence available at the time. At the Central Intelligence Agency, senior officials have defended the assessments, but they have also imposed new guidelines intended to reduce the prospect for failures.

Among those guidelines, an intelligence official said Tuesday, is a requirement that in producing future National Intelligence Estimates, the National Intelligence Council state more explicitly how much confidence it places on each judgment it makes. Those guidelines are being enforced in the updates on the Iranian nuclear program and in the revised National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which will address issues like political stability as well.