Three weeks after promising it would show proof of Iranian meddling in Iraq, the Bush administration has laid out its evidence — and received in return a healthy dose of skepticism.
The response from congressional and other critics speaks volumes about the current state of U.S. credibility, four years after the intelligence controversy leading up to the Iraq war. To pre-empt accusations that the charges against Iran were politically motivated, the administration rejected the idea of a high-level presentation, relying instead on military and intelligence officers to make its case in a background briefing in Baghdad.
Even so, critics have been quick to voice doubts. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, suggested that the White House was more interested in sending a message to Tehran than in backing up serious allegations with proof.
And David Kay, who once led the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, said the grave situation in Iraq should have taught the Bush administration to put more of a premium on transparency when it comes to intelligence. “If you want to avoid the perception that you’ve cooked the books, you come out and make the charges publicly,” Kay said.
Administration officials say their approach was carefully calibrated to focus on concerns that Iran is providing potent weapons used against U.S. troops in Iraq, not to ignite a wider war. “We’re trying to strike the right tone here,” a senior administration official said Monday. “It would have raised the rhetoric to major decibel levels if we had had a briefing in Washington.”
At the State Department, the Pentagon and the office of the Director of National Intelligence, officials had anticipated resistance to their claims. They settled on an approach that sidelined senior officials, including Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and John D. Negroponte, who until last week was the director of national intelligence. By doing so, they avoided the inevitable comparisons to the since-discredited presentation that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made to the U.N. Security Council in 2003 asserting that Iraq had illicit weapons.
The White House and the State Department both made clear on Monday that they endorsed the findings presented in Baghdad. Asked for direct evidence linking Iran’s leadership to the weapons, Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said, “Let me put it this way. There’s not a whole lot of freelancing in the Iranian government, especially when its comes to something like that.”
Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said: “While they presented a circumstantial case, I would put to you that it was a very strong circumstantial case. The Iranians are up to their eyeballs in this activity, I think, very clearly based on the information that was provided over the weekend in Baghdad.”
In Australia, however, Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that he “would not say” that Iran’s leadership was aware of or condoned the attacks.