Los Angeles Times
February 5, 2005
WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee has launched what its chairman called a "preemptive" examination of U.S. intelligence on Iran as part of an effort to avoid the problems that plagued America's prewar assessments on Iraq.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said in an interview Friday that he had sought the unusual review because the erroneous prewar claims about Baghdad's weapons of mass destruction had made lawmakers wary of the CIA's current assessments on Iran.
"We have to be more preemptive on this committee to try to look ahead and determine our capabilities so that you don't get stuck with a situation like you did with Iraq," said Roberts, who also voiced concern about current intelligence on the insurgency in Iraq.
The White House has made it clear that Iran will be a focus of U.S. foreign policy in President Bush's second term. In his State of the Union speech this week, the president identified Iran as "the world's primary state sponsor of terror, pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve."
A recent CIA report concludes that Tehran is vigorously pursuing programs to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
The aim of the Senate review, Roberts said, is to ensure that any weaknesses in American intelligence on Iran are disclosed to policymakers, and that U.S. spy agencies have adequate resources to fill gaps in information on the Islamic republic.
Roberts said that the review was in its early stages and that the committee had not reached any preliminary judgments about the quality of U.S. intelligence reports on Tehran's alleged weapons activities.
Senior aides on the committee emphasized that the panel was not opening a formal investigation or inquiry. Rather, they said that the review of intelligence on Iran was part of a broader shift in the way the committee approached its oversight responsibilities, toward anticipating problems rather than investigating intelligence failures after they occur.
Roberts said the review of U.S. efforts to spy on Iran would largely take place behind closed doors, involving interviews with analysts and intelligence officials and a review of classified documents.
Aides said that unlike the committee's review on Iraq, which culminated in a 500-page public report containing harsh criticism of the CIA, there was no plan to go public with its findings on the quality of intelligence on Iran.
The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, said Friday that he supported the review of intelligence on Iran.
"One of the lessons we learned from Iraq was not to take all information at face value and to ask more questions in the beginning than in the end," Rockefeller said in a statement.
A CIA spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the agency was aware of the committee's plan to examine intelligence on Iran and would assist in the review.
"We will, as usual, be working closely with the committee in this effort," the official said.
Senior intelligence committee aides from both parties said that the panel also intended to examine U.S. intelligence gathering and reporting on other important U.S. espionage targets, including North Korea and China.
Roberts said that the committee's efforts would focus on Tehran first because Iran had become "the big bully on the block" since the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Amid mounting speculation that the United States is contemplating a preemptive military strike against Tehran, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, now traveling in Europe, said Friday that such an option was "not on the agenda at this point in time."
"We have many diplomatic tools still at our disposal and we intend to pursue them fully," she told reporters after meeting in London with British Foreign Minister Jack Straw.
The European Union and Iran are expected to resume talks on Tehran's nuclear program next week in Geneva.
A series of inspections in Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog group, over the last 18 months has exposed a long-hidden Iranian program to produce fissile material that could be used for nuclear weapons, but IAEA officials say they believe Tehran has frozen the program. Iran insists that its nascent nuclear program is designed to produce energy, not weapons.
The CIA, in its recent unclassified report, said Tehran was using its civilian nuclear program as a shield for illegal weapons development. But U.S. intelligence officials have acknowledged that the CIA and other agencies have few reliable sources of information on the regime's alleged weapons-related activities.
Roberts was also critical of the CIA's efforts to penetrate the insurgency in Iraq, saying that although the agency had deployed a large number of officers to the country, many CIA operatives were hunkered down in the heavily fortified sector of Baghdad known as the Green Zone.
"They're inside looking at flat [computer] screens," Roberts said of CIA operatives. "They're not out there with that poor damn Marine out there getting his tail shot off."
Roberts, a former Marine, said there had been quality reports on the insurgency. "We get, I think, pretty good briefings on who people are, how many, where they are, where they're going," he said.
But he said key assessments had been significantly flawed. In particular, dire predictions about violence and expected participation in the Iraqi elections proved wrong.
Asked about the overall quality of intelligence on the insurgency in Iraq, Roberts said, "I don't know how to rate it except to say we can do better."
He declined to disclose details from the latest assessments on the scope and composition of the insurgency.
The CIA spokesperson staunchly defended the agency's recent intelligence on Iraq, noting that in an appearance Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had praised a recently issued, classified CIA report that focused on the motivation of Iraqi insurgents.
"The CIA has received a positive response from many in the policy community with respect to our reporting in Iraq," the spokesperson said.
Asked to comment on Roberts' statement that agency operatives were confined to watching "flat screens," the spokesperson said, "There are CIA officers who are risking their lives on a daily basis in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe."
After an extensive review, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a scathing report in July on U.S. prewar intelligence failures in Iraq.
The panel concluded that most judgments about Iraq's suspected nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs were "either overstated or were not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting."
Last month, the agency issued the first in a series of planned reports acknowledging that its prewar assessments on Iraq had been wrong, and that Baghdad likely had abandoned its chemical weapons programs after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.