Republican Report Hypes Iran ‘Threat’

In what some critics describe as a replay of the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Republican chairman of the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives has released a report suggesting Iran may acquire nuclear weapons much more quickly than U.S. intelligence agencies believe.

The 29-page report, authored by a former henchman of Washington’s hard-line ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, charged that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other agencies lack "the ability to acquire essential information necessary to make judgments" about Tehran’s nuclear program.

In addition, the report, "Recognizing Iran as a Strategic Threat," warned that the intelligence community remains woefully ignorant about alleged ties between Tehran and al-Qaeda or even its role, if any, in the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah.

The report was released in the wake of Tuesday’s reply by Iran to the U.N. Security Council’s demand that it immediately cease its enrichment of uranium as a first step toward resuming negotiations with the EU-3 – Germany, Britain and France – over the future of its nuclear program.

The timing appeared designed to take maximum advantage of the media attention generated by Iran’s response, which rejected the demand for immediate suspension but called for additional negotiations. Normally, a report of this kind is reviewed by the entire Intelligence Committee before it is published.

Critics charged that the new report, which was carried out under the auspices of the Committee chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, appeared designed mainly to cast doubt on estimates by the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community that Iran was unlikely to develop a nuclear weapon until at least 2010.

That assessment is 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 negotiations between the EU3 and Tehran as "appeasement."

"The intelligence community is dedicated to predicting the least-dangerous world possible," complained former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who last month argued that the U.S. is already engaged – knowingly or not – in a "Third World War" against the "irreconcilable wing of Islam… with Iran at the epicenter."

Gingrich’s complaint recalled attacks on the intelligence community before the Iraq war when he and other hawks repeatedly assailed the State Department and the CIA for questioning claims by Iraqi exiles regarding the advanced state of Baghdad’s alleged nuclear arms program and its ties to al-Qaeda. Those claims, both of which proved unfounded, became the two main justifications for President George W. Bush’s decision to launch the war against Iraq.

"(T)his is a chilling reminder," according to the New York Times‘ lead editorial Friday 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-Qaeda."

"He kept asking if they really meant it – until the CIA took the hint," the Times noted in a reference to then-CIA director George Tenet’s reported assurances to Bush that the case that Iraq was indeed building a nuclear weapon was a "slam dunk."

In fact, antagonism between hawks and the intelligence community dates back to the mid-1970s when the former questioned what they charged was the CIA’s over-optimistic estimates about the Soviet Union’s strategic intentions against the U.S.

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 which predictably came up with a far gloomier and, in retrospect, highly exaggerated assessment of Moscow’s designs that effectively ended the détente policies pursued by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The new study, according to Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who served on the National Security Council under former 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 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 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, former 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.

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 Friday.

Indeed, Sick found glaring flaws in both the report’s factual assertions and analysis, all of which was 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" – an assertion 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’s 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’ judgement and a potential rush to war," he added. "It deserves to be recognized for what it is."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.