U.S. Intel: Off the Mark on Iran

President Obama's cautious response to election results in Iran may be partly explained by the fact that U.S. intelligence agencies were off the mark in assessments they gave the White House and lawmakers. Five officials familiar with intel reporting and analysis, who asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive material, say most experts at the CIA and other intel agencies initially believed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won reelection solidly—and that if there was fraud, it was at the margins.

The agencies were caught off guard by the Iranian authorities' maladroit handling of election results (an overwhelming Ahmadinejad victory was announced only hours after the polls closed) and by what came next. "Lots of people were surprised by the outbreak of protests," says one of the officials. Even after the street erupted, some U.S. experts still maintained that Ahmadinejad won big and that the protests would run their course more quickly than they did. "We were slow on the uptake," Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, tells NEWSWEEK. "I think we're still behind the curve." Still, one U.S. intel official insists: "The speed with which the Iranians announced the results, and the margin they gave Ahmadinejad, were signs there would be trouble. They weren't missed."