U.S. intelligence information on Iran is inadequate and may contain misinformation that spy agencies are accepting as solid, the top Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence said Tuesday.
Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., told Council on Foreign Relations gathering that she and other lawmakers recently received a briefing from intelligence agencies based on information shared with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. Security Council.
Her bottom line: "I remain skeptical — lots of unanswered questions."
"The conjecture that I have is that if I were Iran, and I wanted to put out disinformation, it might look a lot like what our government is claiming is information," she said. "I can't tell you that's true, but I can't tell you it's not true."
Harman didn't provide details on the classified session.
With tensions growing between the U.S. and Iran over its nuclear program, Tehran in the past week has touted new weapons including missiles supposedly invisible to radar and torpedoes too fast to be avoided. Experts have questioned Iran's claims about the weapons' capabilities.
The announcements came as the Bush administration was working toward a diplomatic solution to address its belief that Iran intends to produce nuclear weapons. Iran says it aims only to generate electricity, but it has thus far defied U.N. Security Council demands that it give up key parts of its program.
Last week, the Security Council unanimously approved a statement demanding that Iran suspend uranium enrichment.
When asked about Iran's recent weapons announcements Tuesday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Iran's "aggressive military program and defiant rhetoric are further examples of how the regime is isolating itself." But he stressed the administration hopes to work toward a diplomatic solution.
McClellan said the United States has a number of concerns about Iran's behavior, including its efforts to conceal its nuclear activities, support of terrorism, use of threatening rhetoric and disregard for the demands of the international community.
Harman said she does not doubt that Iran is a threat. "The issue is how capable are they and what are the real intentions of Iran's leaders, and I think the jury is out on both of those," Harman said.
In recent months, she and others on Capitol Hill have been seeking information about how to deal with Iran. Bruises in Congress and elsewhere in the government remain fresh on the botched prewar intelligence on Iraq's never-to-be-found weapons of mass destruction.
"I want to be absolutely sure that we base decisions — especially tough decisions like what are the next steps with Iran, and I surely hope they are diplomatic because I think those are our best options — on pristine and pure intelligence or the closest we can get to that," Harman said.
She was echoing the words of former U.S. weapons inspector David Kay, who was in charge of the hunt for Iraq's arsenal until he quit his position in January 2004. Then, he said that "pristine intelligence, good accurate intelligence" was fundamental to a pre-emptive military policy, which the Bush administration adopted after Sept. 11, 2001.
Harman spoke alongside former acting CIA Director John McLaughlin, a veteran intelligence analyst who was the agency's No. 2 official in the run-up to the Iraq war. He politely quibbled with the use of the phrase "pristine intelligence."
"It's important, I think, to realize that intelligence isn't going to be pristine and pure," McLaughlin said.
He said intelligence is often incomplete and at some point policy decisions must be made. "We are getting a little caught in the idea that intelligence has the answer to everything," he said.