KATHERINE PFLEGER SHRADER
WASHINGTON - The head of the advisory National Intelligence Council says he is not optimistic the United States and its allies can change Iran's intention of building a nuclear capacity.
"I am somewhat more optimistic - somewhat, I emphasize - that we can, through diplomacy and a combination of pressure and inducements, keep them on track," council Chairman Robert Hutchings said in an interview Monday, his last day on the job.
Senior U.S. officials suspect that Iran is continuing work on a covert program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful, energy-generation purposes only.
Hutchings warned that a nuclear-armed Iran "will be seriously destabilizing for the larger region and would certainly have consequences for Iran's neighbors."
It may be two or three years before Iraq settles down and Middle East peace talks improve security in Iran's neighborhood, he said.
At a minimum, Hutchings said, the United States and its allies in Europe need to keep the Iranian regime from completing the nuclear fuel cycle. "And ideally to have them build down their nuclear capacity," he said.
The National Intelligence Council is a group of the intelligence community's most senior analysts, who produce highly classified intelligence estimates that draw on information across the U.S. intelligence apparatus. The council reports directly to CIA Director Porter Goss but is independent.
Hutchings - who says "we are living through a moment of unprecedented turbulence in world affairs" - finished a two-year tour as chairman and returns to Princeton University. He said it's unclear who his successor will be, a decision that may wait for the appointment of a national intelligence director.
That position was created in December in a sweeping intelligence reform bill. Hutchings said changes in the intelligence structure must be handled carefully to avoid undermining the CIA and to allow the national intelligence director to better coordinate the intelligence community, as intended.
He said the position was created during "the nastiest political environment I've ever been in."
Hutchings joined the council in early 2003, shortly after it produced the highly controversial National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. The report overstated the threat posed by Iraq's weapons - the Bush administration's leading argument for war.
Hutchings said he thinks a fair amount of "irresponsible criticism" followed but conceded that the report was flawed.
During his tenure, he said, the council has worked to be more transparent about sources used in intelligence estimates, about where its judgments come from and about where information is lacking. He declined to offer specifics, which are classified.
Also in the interview, Hutchings wouldn't predict whether the violence in Iraq will ebb or spike after Sunday's elections. Assuring Sunni representation in the new government will be critical, he said.
Hutchings said radical currents emanating from the Middle East since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have changed Islam globally.
"You can see it in the most peaceful communities of rural Indonesia, where all of a sudden an Asian or Indonesian way to Islam is being challenged by a version of Islam that purports to be more authentic or pure because it comes from the font of Islam," he said.
The message, he said, is "more radical" and "destabilizing."