The US intelligence community came under fire over the weekend on two fronts, as conservatives criticized a recent CIA report on Iran's nuclear program and the Justice Department announced a probe into the agency's destruction of videotapes showing interrogations of terror suspects.
|The CIA symbol is shown on the floor of its headquarters in Langley, Virginia (Photo: AFP)|
The intelligence services are still trying to restore their credibility following the debacle over alleged weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the main justification for the US-led 2003 invasion.
After months of increasingly bellicose rhetoric from President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney over the threat of Iran's nuclear program, the US intelligence agencies on Monday declared with "high confidence" that Iran halted a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003 in response to international pressure.
The assessment of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) overturned long-held US policy assumptions that Iran is bent on obtaining nuclear weapons, regardless of international demands or sanctions.
Democrats in Congress, who said the Bush administration was overstating the Iranian threat, now took a back seat to conservative Republican critics, who said the report understated the Iranian threat.
Chief among them was former US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, who wrote in a commentary this week that "the NIE is internally contradictory and insufficiently supported."
He also warned that the regime in Tehran may have put out false information to mislead the world, saying "the risks of disinformation by Iran are real."
A top US intelligence official on Saturday issued an unusual statement responding to the critics.
"The task of the Intelligence Community is to produce objective, ground truth analysis," said Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence.
"We feel confident in our analytic tradecraft and resulting analysis in this estimate," Kerr said in a brief written statement.
Kerr said he issued the statement "in response to those questioning the analytic work and integrity of the United States Intelligence Community."
"National Intelligence Estimates contain the coordinated judgments of the Intelligence Community regarding the likely course of future events and the implications for US policy," he said.
Also Saturday, the Department of Justice announced it would launch an inquiry with the Central Intelligence Agency's internal watchdog office to determine whether a full-blown investigation was needed on the destroyed interrogation tapes, the DOJ announced.
"I welcome this inquiry," CIA Director Mike Hayden said in a statement, adding that his agency would fully cooperate with investigators.
"I welcome it as an opportunity to address questions that have arisen over the destruction back in 2005 of videotapes," Hayden said.
Hayden became CIA director in May 2006, replacing Porter Goss, who headed the CIA from September 2004.
The inquiry announcement came one day after Democrats in Congress demanded an immediate investigation after the spy agency admitted to disposing of the videotapes to protect the identities of CIA agents.
Democratic lawmakers charged the CIA's decision was a cover-up designed to hide proof of possible abuse and torture of detainees.
Senator Ted Kennedy and other Democrats said an inquiry should determine whether the CIA broke the law by destroying the tapes in 2005 -- a time when Congress was investigating allegations of torture.
The tapes reportedly showed harsh interrogation methods used on Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who were among the first suspects interrogated by the CIA in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
The recordings were destroyed despite appeals in 2003 by White House and Justice Department officials as well as top lawmakers not to dispose of the tapes, The New York Times reported Saturday.
The tapes were of possible interest to a former blue-ribbon panel examining the September 11 attacks.
That former commission expressed anger that the CIA had withheld the tapes despite repeated requests for all pertinent information related to terror suspects.
Lee Hamilton, co-chair of the bi-partisan panel, said the CIA had clearly obstructed the commission's work and his colleague Thomas Kean accused the CIA of lying.