Video: Study critical of U.S. intelligence

NBC News and news services
updated 3/9/2005 9:12:30 PM ET 2005-03-10T02:12:30

At a time when America is talking tougher about the dangers of the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, there's word that a commission studying U.S. intelligence is preparing to say the administration doesn't know enough to draw any firm conclusions.  Even so, the White House said Wednesday that enough is known to justify its concerns.

President Bush defended his concerns over Iran's ambitious — and ambiguous — nuclear weapons program and said the United States isn't the only country that's worried.

"I think it's very important for the United States to continue to work with our friends and allies, which believe that the Iranians want a nuclear weapon," the president said.

The nine-member commission, appointed in February of 2004, has been operating under extraordinary secrecy, meeting with officials as senior as Bush and his national security team behind closed doors in contrast to the Sept. 11 commission’s high-profile, public sessions.

Commission spokesman Larry McQuillan said the commissioners have yet to approve a final report. He said the panel was meeting Wednesday and Thursday.

Because of the secrecy and classified nature of the discussions, individuals involved in the weapons inquiry declined to comment on the record.

Yet the commission is known to be critiquing issues relating to intelligence on weapons proliferation in Iraq before the 2003 invasion, as well as current knowledge on Iran and North Korea, which are accused of developing covert nuclear programs.

Bush: U.S. must team with allies
When asked Wednesday whether U.S. intelligence is solid enough to make judgments on Iran’s nuclear program, Bush said the United States must work with its allies, “which know that Iran possessing a nuclear weapon would be very destabilizing.”

Some experts on Iran say the assignment for U.S. intelligence is a tough one, because policy in that country is controlled by only a few.

“It's made by a very narrow collection of people,” Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations told NBC. “And they tend also to be members of the same sort of clerical elite, people who have known each other for decades and have familiarity with each other.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted as much when she acknowledged that Iran “is not an easy place to know precisely what is going on” because it’s a “closed-in” society.

“But I believe that there is enough evidence that there are problems with Iran’s civilian nuclear power ambitions, and that’s why you have so many countries trying to make sure that there is no proliferation risk.”

The commission is also expected to reach conclusions on the threat from transnational terrorist organizations who are seeking weapons of mass destruction, such as al-Qaida, and the motivations of regimes that pursue — or pretend to pursue, as was the case in Iraq — weapons of mass destruction.

Oversight, management key issues
The panel led by Republican Laurence Silberman and Democrat Charles Robb is also looking at issues of improved congressional oversight and the management of intelligence agencies. Bush has asked the commission to look at the merits of the new national intelligence director’s post and a center focused on tracking the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, created in an extensive intelligence reform bill he signed in December.

The commission has brought on dozens of consultants with experience including satellite imagery, diplomacy, terrorism, congressional oversight, electronic surveillance and traditional human spying, drawing on their experiences at more than a dozen U.S. intelligence agencies.

The panel is expected to release a declassified version of its findings and recommendations, which will look strikingly different from the classified version prepared for the White House. Several details of the report, expected to be extensive, were first reported by The New York Times Wednesday.

Congress will also get a copy of the findings and recommendations, as ordered in the intelligence reform law.

The commission was established in response to a political and public outcry for an investigation into the flawed weapons estimates on Iraq following the January resignation of the top U.S. weapons inspector there, David Kay. He told Congress that “We were almost all wrong” about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs.

McCain sets the bar high
In an interview before joining the panel as a member, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., set the bar high in talking about the mission for any weapons commission.

“We need to not only know what happened (with the Iraq intelligence), but know what steps are necessary to prevent the United States form being misinformed ever again,” he said.

Since then, senior U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly defended the work of the intelligence community and have sought to remind the public and policy-makers that intelligence isn’t evidence, but best estimates.

The Bush administration used those estimates on Iraq’s weapons programs as part of its justification for overthrowing Saddam. Now, the administration is increasing the volume and seriousness of its rhetoric on Iran.

Bush has labeled Iran “the world’s primary state sponsor of terror.” Last month, he called suggestions that the United States is preparing to attack Iran “simply ridiculous,” but quickly added that “all options are on the table.”

NBC News' Pete Williams and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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