WASHINGTON -- The government has far greater confidence in the assessments of Iran's weapons capabilities than it did in those on Iraq because analysis has improved as a result of "lessons learned" from the Iraq intelligence failures, senior U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday.
The officials said they know that they must rebuild public confidence in the accuracy of their conclusions in the wake of the 9/11 and Iraq intelligence debacles.
They commented during a two-hour roundtable discussion with reporters marking the first anniversary of the nation's new intelligence organization.
"Our overall intelligence on Iran has benefited from a lessons-learned exercise," said Gen. Michael V. Hayden, top deputy to John D. Negroponte, the national intelligence director.
Hayden, a former National Security Agency director, said analysts are incorporating more divergent views into their reports and are using more precise language to describe what they know and what they do not know.
The officials stood by their evaluation that it will be several years before Iran can produce a nuclear weapon, despite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's declaration yesterday that recent developments in his country's nuclear program require the United States to treat Iran as a nuclear state.
In recent days, members of Congress have begun to scrutinize the intelligence on Iran in light of the Iraq failures and have criticized the new data.
Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, said last week after reading the classified reports on Iran that the government's assessment "is not close to where it needs to be."
She said she found a troubling gap in the government's understanding of "the plans and intentions of the Iranian government." The collection of information on Iran continues to suffer, she said, because resources are diverted to the daily intelligence needs of solders in Iraq.
"I hope we have learned from the hard experience," she said.
Senior intelligence officials said U.S. analysts are incorporating more details about sources of information into their reports so that politicians can better understand how a particular conclusion was derived.
They are also rating their level of confidence in their sources and conclusions.
An effort has begun, they said, to guard against misinterpretation of intelligence reports by politicians, which led to frequent criticism of the government's failures in dealing with reports about Iraq.
"We have to take responsibility for the way our judgments are interpreted," said Thomas Fingar, Negroponte's chief intelligence analyst.
Analysts are taking steps to check in advance the information in speeches and other public statements by U.S. officials, he said.
When analysts disagree, Fingar said, competing arguments will be evaluated on their merits rather than on the number of agencies that agree with one assessment or another.
That change is of personal significance to him, he said, because in his previous job, leading the State Department's intelligence office, he was one of the dissenters on reports concluding that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Clandestine operatives have improved their work on Iran, said Mary Margaret Graham, who heads Negroponte's human spying office. One of the greatest failings of the information about Iraq's weapons capability was that the sources proved unreliable.
Looking at the sources of information, particularly on Iran, "you actually see why the analysts are happier with what they are getting," she said.
Hayden tried to counter the criticism that the Iraq war has diverted resources from possible threats such as Iran, saying he couldn't recall "being forced to make a trade-off."
The officials said that although Iran announced this week that it had produced 164 centrifuges to enrich uranium, it would take years to produce the 54,000 centrifuges needed to build a nuclear weapon.
"The assessment of the timeline was broad enough that the recent events, particularly until they're well understood ... won't be affected," said Kenneth Brill, head of the new National Counterproliferation Center.
Iran could be exaggerating its accomplishments, as it has in the past, he said.
Asked whether there had been any disagreement among U.S. analysts about Iran's nuclear timeline, Fingar said there had not.