Spy agencies underplaying Iran threat, Republicans say

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON --Some senior Bush administration officials and top Republican lawmakers are expressing anger that U.S. spy agencies have not issued more warnings about the threats that they say Iran presents to the United States.

Some policymakers have accused intelligence agencies of playing down Iran's role in Hezbollah's recent attacks on 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 yesterday. They echo the tensions that divided the administration and the CIA 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 are pressing for confronting Iran directly over its nuclear program and ties to terrorism, officials with knowledge of the debate said.

The dissonance is surfacing as the intelligence agencies are overhauling their procedures to prevent a repeat of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, the faulty assessment that had a role in the decision to invade Iraq.

The new report from the House Intelligence Committee, chaired by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican, portrayed Iran as a growing threat and criticized U.S. spy agencies for cautious assessments about Iran's weapons programs.

"Intelligence community managers and analysts must provide their best analytical judgments about Iranian WMD 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 such as nuclear arms.

Some policymakers also said they were displeased that the 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," a senior U.S. 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, such as the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency or the State Department's intelligence bureau, which sometimes differ in their views.

Officials from across the government - including the Bush administration, Congress and intelligence agencies - spoke for this article on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing a debate over classified intelligence information.

Some officials said that given all that has happened over the past four years, it is appropriate that the intelligence agencies take 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 Rep. Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. "I'm not surprised that some in the intelligence community are a bit gun-shy about appearing to be warmongering."

Several intelligence officials said the spy agencies have made assessments in recent weeks that despite established ties between Iran and Hezbollah, and a well-documented history of Iran's arming the organization, there was no credible evidence to suggest 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," an intelligence official in Washington said. "Nobody should think that Hezbollah is a remote-controlled entity."

U.S. military assessments have broadly echoed that view, say people who maintain close ties to military intelligence officers.

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, then the Defense Department's third-ranking civilian official, that sifted through raw intelligence to look for links between terrorist networks and governments like Iraq's.

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