How Flawed Is U.S. Intel on Iran?

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One of the worst-kept secrets in Washington is that Washington doesn't know very much about Iran's nuclear program. For a nation spending over $800 million a week on intelligence gathering — at a time when an international confrontation over Iran's nuclear program is escalating — that's grim news.

The House intelligence committee only rubbed salt into that wound Wednesday when it released a report declaring just that, saying specifically that "the United States lacks critical information needed for analysts to make many of their judgments with confidence about Iran and there are many significant information gaps." But in calling attention now to the U.S. intelligence gaps about Iran's activity, the 29-page study seemed to remind some in Washington of the White House's 2002 push for war with Iraq, which was based on what is now known to have been seriously flawed intelligence. That suspicion was only heightened when The New York Times reported Thursday that some Republican leaders and Bush Administration officials were starting to argue that certain elements of the intelligence apparatus, which tends to believe that Iran is still years away from developing a nuclear weapon, were not taking the threat seriously enough. (The fact that one of the report's authors was Frederick Fleitz, an ex-CIA officer who had worked for a leading Bush Administration hawk, now-U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, also raised some eyebrows — though committee spokesman Jamal Ware said the report was bipartisan and was begun before Fleitz joined the staff.)

In a letter accompanying the report, panel members Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, and Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, went out of their way to note that it was "based on open-source materials" (the 88 footnotes referring to news and already-public government reports underscore this point); in other words, it includes no new information for those who have been paying attention. The letter did note that panel aides had consulted with experts in the U.S. and abroad, which Ware said included a trip to consult with the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. Aides also traveled to consult with German and U.K. intelligence officials who cover Iran, Ware said.

No one knows the weaknesses in U.S. intelligence about Iran better than Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte. He told TIME in April that U.S. intelligence on Iran is "solid" — implying, in part, that it's better than the pre-war Iraq intelligence because he knows key elements are missing from what the U.S. needs to know. "What we've got is good, but I think we also know what we don't know. And we know what the gaps are," Negroponte said. "What we've tried to improve since the WMD fiasco is building the safeguards" to avoid another fiasco of the sort that manifested itself in suggesting before the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.

The House intelligence committee report recommends several steps that ring familiar from numerous other reports on the intelligence community's state of knowledge of terrorist and other national security threats — steps that top intelligence officials have said many times already they are trying to implement. They include beefing up the ranks of spies who know relevant languages (in this case, Farsi) and improving analysis, intelligence sharing and human spy placement. "We are already taking steps along the lines the Committee has recommended...," said Negroponte spokesman John Callahan.

Ware insisted the report was not conceived as a "clip job" meant to create controversy out of already-public information about Iran. Asked if it was a case for war with Iran, Ware said, "No, it was actually meant to be a case for information. What you have that is new here is an attempt to bring the body of information that is available into one place to present to the American people. Has anybody done a better job of getting all this information together and trying to present this?" Ware added that it's an important part of congressional oversight "to identify shortcomings and keep pressure on to fix them." And indeed, the report did take intelligence agenices to task, declaring that "Intelligence community managers and analysts must provide their best analytic judgments about Iranian W.M.D. programs and not shy away from provocative conclusions or bury disagreements in consensus assessments."

The truth is nothing in the House panel's report shocked anyone who's been watching the debate over how to handle Iran. What did concern some intelligence experts was ensuring that it not end up putting pressure on the spooks that might lead to the kind of intelligence fumble that preceded the war in Iraq.