Leading Senator Assails President Over Iran Stance

By MARK MAZZETTI

New York Times

January 20, 2007

WASHINGTON, Jan. 19 — The new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday sharply criticized the Bush administration’s increasingly combative stance toward Iran, saying that White House efforts to portray it as a growing threat are uncomfortably reminiscent of rhetoric about Iraq before the American invasion of 2003.

Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who took control of the committee this month, said that the administration was building a case against Tehran even as American intelligence agencies still know little about either Iran’s internal dynamics or its intentions in the Middle East.

“To be quite honest, I’m a little concerned that it’s Iraq again,” Senator Rockefeller said during an interview in his office. “This whole concept of moving against Iran is bizarre.”

Mr. Rockefeller did not say which aspects of the Bush administration’s case against Iran he thought were not supported by solid intelligence. He did say he agreed with the White House that Iranian operatives inside Iraq were supporting Shiite militias and working against American troops.

Mr. Rockefeller said he believed President Bush was getting poor advice from advisers who argue that an uncompromising stance toward the government in Tehran will serve American interests.

“I don’t think that policy makers in this administration particularly understand Iran,” he said.

The comments of Mr. Rockefeller reflect the mounting concerns being voiced by other influential Democrats, including the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, about the Bush administration’s approach to Iran. The Democrats have warned that the administration is moving toward a confrontation with Iran when the United States has neither the military resources nor the support among American allies and members of Congress to carry out such a move.

Because Mr. Rockefeller is one of a handful of lawmakers with access to the most classified intelligence about the threat from Iran, his views carry particular weight. He has also historically been more tempered in his criticism of the White House on national security issues than some of his Democratic colleagues.

Mr. Rockefeller was biting in his criticism of how President Bush has dealt with the threat of Islamic radicalism since the Sept. 11 attacks, saying he believed that the campaign against international terrorism was “still a mystery” to the president.

“I don’t think he understands the world,” Mr. Rockefeller said. “I don’t think he’s particularly curious about the world. I don’t think he reads like he says he does.”

He added, “Every time he’s read something he tells you about it, I think.”

Last week, the Intelligence Committee heard testimony from John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, that an emboldened Iran was casting a shadow across the Middle East and could decide to send Hezbollah operatives on missions to hit American targets.

Mr. Negroponte testified the morning after President Bush had, in a televised address to the nation, said he was determined to confront what he called worrying activities by Iranian operatives in Iraq, and announced that the Pentagon was building up the American naval presence in the Persian Gulf and sending a battery of Patriot missiles to deter Iranian aggression.

Some Democrats have suggested that Mr. Bush’s speech was the beginning of a meticulously choreographed campaign to demonize Iran, much the way the administration built its public case against Iraq.

In a speech on Friday, Mr. Reid warned the White House not to take military action against Iran without seeking approval from Congress.

Gordon D. Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said in response to Senator Rockefeller’s comments that Iran was taking provocative actions both inside Iraq and elsewhere, and that American allies were united in efforts to end what intelligence officials believe is a covert nuclear weapons program inside the country.

“It has been clear for some time that Iran has been meddling in Iraq, and the Iraqis have made the concerns known to the Iranians,” Mr. Johndroe said. He noted that the administration has said it would be willing to begin direct talks with Iran — which have not occurred since 1979 — if Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities.

Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers on Thursday that over the past year and a half he had come to a “much darker interpretation” of Iran’s activities inside Iraq.

“I think there’s a clear line of evidence that points out the Iranians want to punish the United States, hurt the United States in Iraq, tie down the United States in Iraq, so that our other options in the region, against other activities the Iranians might have, would be limited,” he said.

Mr. Rockefeller’s committee is working to complete a long-delayed investigation into the misuse of intelligence about Iraq in the months before the American-led invasion.

He said that the committee was nearing completion on one part of that investigation, concerning whether the White House ignored prewar C.I.A. assessments that Iraq could disintegrate into chaos.

That report, Mr. Rockefeller said, could be released within months and was “not going to make for pleasant reading at the White House.”

Mr. Rockefeller said that with Democrats now in charge of the Intelligence Committee, he expected the panel to be much more aggressive, both in investigating the use of intelligence to fashion White House policy and in subjecting secret intelligence programs to new scrutiny. He mentioned the C.I.A’s network of secret prisons and the National Security Agency’s domestic wiretapping program as likely subjects of investigations.

“We weren’t able to drill down on a lot of stuff” during the years in which the Intelligence Committee was under Republican control, Mr. Rockefeller said. “Now, there’s a very different attitude.”