WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. intelligence official on Thursday defended a new intelligence report that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 as "one of the most well-sourced" assessments ever produced, even as critics charged that it was rife with flaws.
Donald Kerr, the deputy director of national intelligence, made the statement in congressional testimony as the White House sought to explain whether President Bush knew what was in the report when he warned in October that Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons could trigger World War III.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino acknowledged that the president "could have been more precise" when he told a press conference on Tuesday that he first learned of the report's findings last week.
In fact, the White House said in a statement e-mailed to reporters late Wednesday that National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell told Bush in August that there was new information that might cause the intelligence community "to change its assessment of Iran's covert nuclear program."
"Clearly the president knew that there was information," Perino said Thursday.
But she defended the president's truthfulness in a testy briefing with reporters. "He did not know the specifics of it in terms of all the details and all the different checking that had gone forward," she said. "He got that briefing last Wednesday."
The intelligence report, released Monday, has set off criticism from Democrats and Republicans. The report, known as a National Intelligence Estimate, contradicts an assessment two years ago that found that Iran had an active nuclear weapons program. Monday's report said that intelligence officials now have "moderate confidence" that Iran suspended the program four years ago and hasn't revived it.
At Thursday's congressional hearing, Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., said that he was concerned by the nearly "complete reversal" in the assessment of Iran's nuclear activities.
But Kerr responded that the NIE "did not in any way suggest that Iran was benign for the future."
Kerr said that the report's findings resulted from a more robust effort to collect information on Iran and "most importantly, a substantially increased effort in analysis, drawing on a broader set of people and expertise than we'd enjoyed in the past."
He said that new intelligence on Iran's nuclear activities, the details of which he didn't disclose, also was subjected to rigorous review to determine if it was deliberately planted to mislead the United States.
"We needed to look at alternative possibilities to explain the information that we had on hand," Kerr said. "And so we, for example, had to address the question of whether a strategic deception was something that we were seeing."
He noted that reforms required greater consideration of alternative explanations after a 2002 NIE erroneously concluded that the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was concealing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs.
"I can say here for the record that that this is probably one of the most well-sourced NIEs that has ever been produced," Kerr said.
Several of the Bush administration's most prominent neoconservative allies, however, have attacked the new intelligence report.
John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who served as the State Department's top non-proliferation official, noted in a op-ed in The Washington Post on Thursday that the report said that there are "gaps" in the intelligence and that it is only moderately confident that Iran hasn't restarted its nuclear weapons program.
"This alone should give us considerable pause," wrote Bolton.
He also questioned whether the new intelligence was disinformation planted by Iran, and he asserted that some of the report's drafters weren't trained intelligence analysts but "refugees" from the State Department who'd succeeded in promoting "relatively benign views on Iran's nuclear intentions."
One of the former State Department officials to whom Bolton apparently was referring was Thomas Fingar, a veteran intelligence analyst who chairs the National Intelligence Council. Fingar worked in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which was the only U.S. intelligence agency that dissented from the 2002 judgment that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program.
In his testimony before Congress, Kerr said that the NIE continues to view Iran as a threat because of its defiance of U.N. Security Council demands to suspend work on enrichment, the process that produces low-enriched uranium for nuclear power plants and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
Kerr also noted that the report warned that Iran is continuing to build ballistic missiles and aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and that it judged with "moderate confidence that they continue to want a future weapons capability."
Tehran insists that its enrichment program is for producing low-enriched uranium and denies seeking nuclear weapons.
ON THE WEB
Read the transcript of Dana Perino's contentious briefing of White House reporters.
Read the new NIE on Iran.
Read the White House e-mail acknowledging that President Bush was briefed in August.
Read McClatchy's reporting on Iran's nuclear program and ballistic missile capabilities.