WASHINGTON, March 23 (UPI) -- The head of the international nuclear inspectors watchdog "is falling into the Cheney trap" in the growing Iranian crisis, a former agency official alleged.
International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Yukiya Amano, a veteran Japanese diplomat, has a pro-Western bias, over-relies on unverified intelligence, and sidelines skeptics, said former U.S. weapons scientist Robert Kelley, who ran the IAEA action team on Iraq at the time of the 2003 U.S.-led Iraqi invasion.
Kelly told the British newspaper The Guardian he saw worrying parallels between the West's flawed intelligence about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction then and the IAEA's assessment of Iran's nuclear program now.
Iraqi weapons of mass destruction became the West's primary justification for the invasion. No WMD were found in Iraq.
"Amano is falling into the Cheney trap," Kelley told the newspaper, referring to Dick Cheney, who was vice president under President George W. Bush, whose administration led diplomatic pressure in favor of the invasion.
"What we learned back in 2002 and 2003, when we were in the run-up to the war, was that peer review was very important and that the analysis should not be left to a small group of people," Kelley said.
"So what have we learned since then? Absolutely nothing. Just like Dick Cheney, Amano is relying on a very small group of people and those opinions are not being checked," he said.
U.S., Israeli and European officials, supported by U.N. weapons inspectors, maintain Iran plans to build nuclear weapons. Tehran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian uses only.
Other former officials raised concerns the IAEA under Amano was becoming an information "echo chamber," with suspicions over Iran's program repeated until people assume some variation of the story is true, without vigorous debate that characterized the era of Amano's predecessor Mohamed ElBaradei, the newspaper said.
ElBaradei and the IAEA were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
The critics point to Amano's decision a year ago to dissolve the agency's office of external relations and policy coordination, which ElBaradei used to second-guess judgments made by U.N. nuclear inspectors.
"There has been a concentration of power, with less diversity of viewpoints," a different former agency official told the newspaper, alleging Amano has surrounded himself with advisers who have the same approach to Iran.
Former IAEA Director-General Hans Blix, who in 2002 led the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission that searched Iraq in vain for weapons of mass destruction, said he had concerns about IAEA credibility.
"There is a distinction between information and evidence, and if you are a responsible agency you have to make sure that you ask questions and do not base conclusions on information that has not been verified," he told The Guardian.
The IAEA would not comment on the criticisms, citing a policy that avoids entering public debate.
Western diplomats in Vienna, where the IAEA has its headquarters, defended Amano, who comes from the only nation ever attacked with nuclear arms and grew up as Japan wrestled with the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.
The diplomats pointed out that much the IAEA's Iran nuclear-program information was gathered when ElBaradei ran the agency, although in less detail.
Joseph Cirincione, president of Washington's Ploughshares Fund non-proliferation organization, commented that ElBaradei's more restrained approach to Iran had not succeeded in persuading Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment in line with U.N. Security Council demands.
In November 2011, the IAEA released a report it said made a "credible" case "Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device" and may still be conducting those activities.
The report was the harshest judgment U.N. weapons inspectors had issued in their decade-long struggle to pierce the secrecy surrounding the Iranian program -- and led to U.S.-led Western sanctions against Iran and U.S. and Israeli threats of military action.
The inspectors devoted a section of their report to "credibility of information," they said, because they knew their findings would be compared with the flawed Iraq intelligence that preceded the 2003 invasion, The New York Times reported.