Saturday, May 20, 2006

Democrats ask Bush for intelligence update on Iran

Democrats ask Bush for intelligence update on Iran
By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democrats asked President George W. Bush on Friday to order a new U.S. intelligence report on Iran to avoid the errors that plagued prewar assessments on Iraq.

Five Democrats, headed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, wrote to Bush requesting a new National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, while the United States is involved in an international diplomatic effort to get Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.

The Democrats want an NIE, the intelligence community's most authoritative written judgment, to address several points including Iran's nuclear program and its military and defense capabilities.

The United States and European countries suspect Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons but Tehran insists it aims only to develop a peaceful nuclear energy program.

A hastily prepared 2002 NIE on prewar Iraq, released as the Bush administration made its case for war, concluded on the basis of faulty evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

No such weapons have been found and critics, including Democrats, have accused the Bush administration of politicizing intelligence to justify its march to war.

"In order to avoid repeating mistakes made in the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, we must have objective intelligence untainted by political considerations and policy preferences," said the Democrats, who included ranking members of the Senate intelligence, armed services and foreign relations committees.

Administration officials were not immediately available for comment on the letter.

U.S. officials stress the importance of diplomacy in public remarks about Iran, but at the same time, have said they are not taking possible military action off the table.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has sought to examine the quality of U.S. intelligence on Iran. But a committee staff member said the effort was sidelined by the need to complete the panel's probe of prewar Iraq intelligence.

The Bush administration produced an NIE on Iran about a year ago. That document extended the U.S. estimate of Iran's likely development of nuclear arms to 2015 from early in the next decade.

Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, Bush's nominee for CIA director, acknowledged on Thursday the U.S. intelligence community needed to earn back public confidence after the Iraq WMD breakdown.

But Hayden, whose nomination is expected to win the Senate Intelligence Committee's endorsement next Tuesday, said Iran intelligence was being compiled on a broader basis and would follow new guidelines that emphasize dissenting views and grade the confidence behind specific intelligence claims.

"I think it's unfair to compare what it is we believe we know about Iran with what it is we prove to know or not know about Iraq," Hayden said at his Senate confirmation hearing.

The Democrats' letter asks that a new NIE address 10 specific issues including Iran's foreign policy and the objectives of its government; its relationship with terrorism; prospects for international support for diplomacy, sanctions and military action; and Iran's expected reaction to each option.