On August 23, the Republican-chaired House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a report suggesting that Iran might acquire nuclear weapons much more quickly than U.S. intelligence agencies have predicted. For many observers, it was a case of déjà vu all over again.
The 29-page report charged that the U.S. intelligence community lacks “the ability to acquire essential information necessary to make judgments” about Tehran’s nuclear program. The report, titled “Recognizing Iran as a Strategic Threat: An Intelligence Challenge for the United States,” warned that the intelligence community supposedly remains dangerously ignorant of Iran-related security issues.
The House Intelligence Committee released its report a day after Iran rejected the UN Security Council’s demand that it immediately cease uranium enrichment as a first step toward resuming negotiations with the EU3 (Germany, Britain, and France) over the future of Tehran’s nuclear program (though Iran did call for additional negotiations). The committee’s timing appeared designed to take maximum advantage of media attention generated by Iran’s response.
Critics charged that the unclassified report, which was carried out under the auspices of committee Chairman Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), appeared designed mainly to cast doubt on intelligence community estimates that Iran was unlikely to develop a nuclear weapon until 2010 at the earliest. Such estimates are far too optimistic for Israel-centered neoconservatives and other hawks who favor a policy of confrontation with Iran and have denounced Washington’s possible participation in EU3 negotiations as “appeasement.”
“The intelligence community is dedicated to predicting the least dangerous world possible,” complained former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently to the New York Times, who in July argued that the United States is engaged in a “Third World War” against the “irreconcilable wing of Islam” that has “Iran at the epicenter.”
Gingrich’s complaint, and the apparent new pressure from the House Intelligence Committee aimed at the intelligence community, awakened memories of allegations that intelligence had been politicized in the run-up to the Iraq War and fears that it might happen again.
“(T)his is a chilling reminder,” said the New York Times lead August 25 editorial in reference to the new report, “of what happened when intelligence analysts told Vice President Dick Cheney they could not prove that Iraq was building a nuclear weapon or had ties with al-Qaida. He kept asking if they really meant it-until the CIA took the hint,” the Times editorialized, in a reference to then-CIA director George Tenet’s reported assurance to Bush that the case that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program was a “slam dunk.”
Antagonism between hawks and the intelligence community dates back to the mid-1970s (if not earlier), when the hawks questioned what they charged were overly optimistic CIA estimates regarding the Soviet Union’s strategic intentions against the United States. At that time, they persuaded President Gerald Ford to form a group of hand-picked “independent” experts, called ” Team B,” to review the CIA’s data and come up with their own conclusions-an exercise that predictably came up with a far gloomier and, in retrospect, highly exaggerated assessment of Moscow’s designs, which effectively ended the détente policies pursued by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
The study by new non-experts, according to Gary Sick, an Iran scholar at Columbia University who served on the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter, “is really intended as a sort of Team B report of what at least one (congressional) staffer believes the intelligence community should be reporting on Iran.”
The fact that Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA officer, was apparently the report’s main author, however, suggests that his effort to undermine confidence in the intelligence community’s estimates regarding Iran is part of a larger campaign that includes many of the same hawks who led the drive to war in Iraq. In addition to working for Hoekstra, a staunch administration loyalist, Fleitz served as John Bolton‘s special assistant during Bush’s first term. Bolton, then undersecretary of state for international security and arms control, worked particularly closely with neoconservatives in Cheney’s office and the Pentagon to undermine efforts by his nominal boss at the time, Secretary of State Colin Powell, to engage Iran, North Korea, and Syria on a range of issues.
Bolton was also repeatedly accused, including by the State Department’s own intelligence analysts, of putting pressure on them-sometimes through Fleitz-to exaggerate the weapons capabilities of all of these countries, as well as those of Cuba.
Also casting suspicion on the report is the fact that it uses information provided by such bastions of objectivity as Fox News and the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin (MEIB), a joint publication of the Middle East Forum and the U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon. A pparently long- defunct (its most recent bulletin is from July 2004), the MEIB website describes the online publication as ” a free monthly publication dedicated to providing informed analysis of political and strategic developments in Lebanon, Syria, and the Middle East.” Its publishers are Ziad Abdelnour, president of the U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon, and Daniel Pipes, the founder of the Middle East Forum and a hardline neoconservative who was given a presidential recess appointment to the U.S. Institute for Peace from 2003 to 2005.
In the view of John Prados, a national security expert, the latest report-both its provenance and timing-“should be read as fresh politicization of intelligence” designed to send the message to the intelligence community that any new estimates on Iran that take “a less alarming view [of the threat posed by Iran] will be deemed suspect.”
“More and more it appears that the pattern of manipulation and misuse of intelligence that served the Bush administration in the drive to start a war with Iraq is being repeated today for its neighbor Iran,” wrote Prados in an article for Tompaine.com.
Indeed, Sick found glaring flaws in the in both the report’s factual assertions and analysis, all of which were based on public sources. For example, Fleitz asserted at one point that the 164 centrifuges that Tehran has said are operating at its Natanz enrichment plant are “currently enriching uranium to weapons grade”-a claim for which, according to Sick, there is “no evidence whatsoever.”
Similarly, the study claimed that Iran has “the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East,” a statement that appears to ignore entirely Israel and Saudi Arabia’s larger arsenals of missiles capable of carrying larger warheads than those known to be in Iran’s inventory.
“If you are going to take on the entire U.S. intelligence community, it is a very good idea to at least get your basic facts straight,” said Sick, who also noted that Fleitz neglected to “talk to any of the intelligence organizations that he was indicting” or to take into account extensive findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about Iran’s nuclear program.
“It is a sloppy attempt to lay the ground for another ‘slam-dunk’ judgment and a potential rush to war,” he added. “It deserves to be recognized for what it is.”
Jim Lobe is a Right Web contributing writer and the Washington, DC bureau chief for the Inter Press Service, which published an earlier version of this article.