WASHINGTON—In an echo of the intelligence wars that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a high-stakes struggle is brewing within the Bush administration and in Congress over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program and involvement in terrorism.
U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials say Bush political appointees and hard-liners on Capitol Hill have tried recently to portray Iran's nuclear program as more advanced than it is and to exaggerate Tehran's role in Hezbollah's attack on Israel in mid-July.
The struggle's outcome could have profound implications for U.S. policy.
President Bush, who addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, has said he prefers diplomacy to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but he hasn't ruled out using military force.
Several former U.S. defense officials who maintain close ties to the Pentagon say they've been told that plans for airstrikes—if Bush deems them necessary—are being updated.
The leader of a Persian Gulf country who visited Washington recently came away without receiving assurances he sought that the military option was off the table, said a person with direct knowledge of the meetings.
"It seems like Iran is becoming the new Iraq," said one U.S. counterterrorism official.
This official and others spoke on condition of anonymity because the information involved is classified.
But one facet of the dispute broke into public view in recent days.
The International Atomic Energy Agency complained in an unusual letter made public on Thursday that a House intelligence committee report on Iran contains "erroneous, misleading and unsubstantiated information."
A top official of the IAEA, which conducts nuclear inspections in Iran and elsewhere, wrote that the report exaggerated advances Tehran has made in enriching uranium, which can be used to fuel nuclear arms if made pure enough. The official, Vilmos Cserveny, said the report also falsely claimed that IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei had removed an inspector from Iran for being too aggressive.
Cserveny's letter was addressed to intelligence committee chairman Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich.
Hoekstra spokesman Jamal Ware said that the reference to weapons-grade uranium in the report was in a photo caption, but that the report makes clear elsewhere that Iran has not yet achieved that capability.
Committee aides say the report was meant to provoke discussion about Iran and wasn't a call for exaggerated intelligence.
The dispute was a virtual rerun of the months before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, when ElBaradei and his agency questioned claims that Saddam Hussein was aggressively seeking nuclear weapons. Some top U.S. officials sought to discredit ElBaradei, although the IAEA's assessment proved correct.
The IAEA's written protest, dated Tuesday, was echoed privately by U.S. intelligence analysts, who saw the House report as an attempt to discredit the CIA and other agencies on Iran.
The situations with Iran now and Iraq four years ago, when Bush and his aides were making the case for war, aren't completely parallel.
Even officials and foreign countries that were skeptical about Iraq agree that Iran is probably seeking a nuclear weapon. And there is widespread consensus that Tehran is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world.
But there are sharp differences over Iran's capabilities and actions.
Some officials at the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department said they're concerned that the offices of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney may be receiving a stream of questionable information that originates with Iranian exiles, including a discredited arms dealer, Manucher Ghorbanifar, who played a role in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal.
Officials at all three agencies said they suspect that the dubious information may include claims that Iran directed Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, to kidnap two Israeli soldiers in July; that Iran's nuclear program is moving faster than generally believed; and that the Iranian people are eager to join foreign efforts to overthrow their theocratic rulers.
The officials said there is no reliable intelligence to support any of those assertions and some that contradicts all three.
The officials said they fear a replay of the administration's mishandling of what turned out to be bogus information from Iraqi exiles in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, documented earlier this month in a Senate intelligence committee report.
But they said this time, intelligence analysts and others are more forcefully challenging claims they believe to be false or questionable.
"There's no question that people are less afraid to speak up after what happened in Iraq," said one intelligence official. "There's less of an inclination to let Cheney and Rumsfeld run free."
It is, said a second U.S. intelligence official, "a little more difficult to try to put forward a one-sided view." Analysts "are not willing to be rolled over," he said.
On Hezbollah, officials say they have fought to tone down administration public statements and internal briefing papers about Iran's complicity in the attack on Israel, which sparked a month-long war.
"They're just basically saying all kinds of wacky stuff," said the first counter-terrorism official. "Now Iran is (said to be) responsible for everything Hezbollah does."
Iran is widely believed to be arming, funding and helping train Hezbollah as its proxy among Lebanon's Shiite Muslims. But a majority of analysts believe Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah maintains quite a bit of independence.
"No one says that Hezbollah is completely independent," said a U.S. intelligence official. But, "I'm not sure anyone thinks Iran ordered the kidnapping of the Israelis."
Adding to the unease, Rumsfeld's office earlier this year set up a new Iranian directorate, reported to be under the leadership of neoconservatives who played a role in planning the Iraq war.
Current and former officials said the Pentagon's Iranian directorate has been headed by Abram Shulsky. Shulsky also was the head of the now-defunct Office of Special Plans, whose role in allegedly manipulating Iraq intelligence is under investigation by the Pentagon's inspector general.
Some officials say they fear the office, whose existence was first reported by the Los Angeles Times, is being used to funnel intelligence from Ghorbanifar, the arms dealer, and an Iranian exile group known as the Mujahedeen Khalq.
A Pentagon spokeswoman didn't return two phone calls seeking comment about the office.
Bill Murray, a retired CIA station chief in Paris who met with a Ghorbanifar associate and found his claims about Iran to be bogus, called the office's establishment "a big bell ringer."
"That is outright manipulation of information to suggest a predetermined policy," Murray said.