"Fantasy" clashes with reality over Iraq policy

Analysts say the new National Intelligence Estimate gets it right. One intriguing question remains: Who commissioned it and why?

Published September 17, 2004 10:30PM (EDT)

In the fall of 2002, Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, dismayed that President Bush appeared intent on invading Iraq without fully vetting the complicated issues involved, demanded that the Central Intelligence Agency produce a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) assessing the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein. The document was a highly politicized one that made the case for invading Iraq by playing up dubious evidence of weapons of mass destruction while de-emphasizing dissenting views from intelligence analysts; ultimately, that NIE contributed to an uproar over the quality of intelligence that resulted in CIA Director George Tenet's resignation in July. Now, according to a report in the New York Times, a new NIE on Iraq's precarious future was produced for the administration in July under the direction of acting CIA Director John McLaughlin. It is a somber view of three scenarios for the war-torn country that range from bad (years more of violence and political turmoil) to devastating (a civil war).

Experts in intelligence applaud the new NIE, which represents the consensus judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies, as the kind of hard-nosed and realistic assessment that has been sorely lacking in Bush's policies. A leading critic of the administration, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., called Thursday for the classified report to be made public "so the American people come to a conclusion" about the wisdom of reelecting Bush.

Meanwhile, White House press secretary Scott McClellan tried to downplay the importance of the NIE by saying it "states the obvious." But the conclusions of the NIE are at odds with President Bush's almost daily statements that his policy is "succeeding." On Tuesday, a suicide bomber plunged into a crowd of young men applying for posts in an Iraqi security force, killing 47, while saboteurs blew up yet another section of oil pipeline. Insurgents hold large swaths of the country, Islamic Sunni fundamentalism is on the rise and elections scheduled for January appear increasingly in doubt. But in his press briefing Thursday, McClellan insisted, with Orwellian flair: "The Iraqi people are proving that those scenarios [described in the NIE] are wrong by the progress that they are making to build a better future, and the coalition is there helping them as they do so."

Sen. John Kerry, addressing the National Guard Association meeting on Thursday, referring to the NIE, said: "I believe you deserve a president who isn't going to gild that truth, or gild our national security with politics, who is not going to ignore his own intelligence ..." The country deserves a president "who will give the American people the truth, not a fantasy world of spin."

Even before Kerry's speech, Sen. Graham held a conference call with reporters arranged by the Kerry campaign. He said that the report "throws a large bucket of cold water" over Bush's "very rosy scenario" for Iraq. The former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman added that the full NIE must be declassified now, before the public makes a crucial decision in the November presidential election. His calls for disclosure Thursday were reminiscent of his race against the clock two years ago to force declassification of the October 2002 NIE before Congress voted on a resolution to authorize war.

Two years ago, Graham was outflanked when he attempted to force the White House to make public the intelligence assessment on Saddam Hussein's WMD. Graham has described those events in a new book, "Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia and the Failure of America's War on Terror." The book describes a closed-door meeting on Sept. 5, 2002, with George Tenet, in which the Senate Intelligence Committee sought to clarify whether the increasingly dire threat painted by Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials was real, and whether it justified a preemptive invasion. Graham and senators Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., assumed an NIE on Iraq must already exist, given the gravity of an invasion. (Such assessments can be initiated either by the White House, Congress or the CIA). And the senators asked to see it. Tenet and other intelligence agency representatives replied with "blank stares," Graham wrote. The Democratic senators demanded that Tenet get to work immediately on the report.

Three weeks later, Tenet turned over to the congressional intelligence committees a 90-page classified NIE that minimized the view, held by the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Department of Energy, that Saddam had probably not reconstituted a nuclear program. The NIE buried their many caveats in footnotes even as it also concluded that Saddam had shown little desire to attack the United States, and that Iraq had few contacts with al-Qaida. Graham pushed for its declassification. He got it on Oct. 4, 2002, only a week before the Congress voted on the Iraq war resolution.

The declassified report was 25 pages long and appeared to have been produced in advance, judging by the slick graphics and maps that accompanied it, Graham said. Gone were the caveats that the classified version had included, and gone were the assessments that Saddam didn't appear interested in attacking the United States. What was left was "a vivid and terrifying case for war," Graham wrote. And yet, after the invasion, no WMD were ever found in Iraq, and chief weapons inspector David Kay concluded that they did not exist. Greg Thielmann, who headed the State Department's Intelligence and Research Bureau's division on proliferation and weapons in 2002 and contributed some of the skeptical views to the last NIE, told Salon that he is "very encouraged" that the new assessment appears "free of political spin."

"I think that's exactly the way the intelligence community should be used. From the press accounts, it appears to be a very objective look," Thielmann said. "I hope this means they are being more careful now to tell it like the analysts are calling it."

But unlike Graham, he does not endorse public release of the document. "That's a difficult issue. If an intelligence analysis is going to be of value to the administration, it has to be written confidentially. Otherwise, the pressure becomes enormous not to criticize the administration, or to spin things in a way that is not negative."

Thielmann continued: "Now, what the administration says about the report is an entirely different issue. If the administration wishes to give a dishonest reading of it, they shouldn't be allowed to get away with that." Congressional oversight may be the best chance of keeping the White House honest, he said.

But according to congressional sources, the Senate Intelligence Committee received a copy of the NIE only on Sept. 9, two months after it was written. The House intelligence panel received a copy only two days ago. Graham told Salon the timing is suspect: "I wonder why they were so late in delivering it to Congress. Normally, those are delivered to Congress almost contemporaneously with being delivered to the executive branch. I think it's another example that this administration doesn't want any news that is not favorable to them."

Clearly, the Congress once again has been kept out of the loop. Which raises an intriguing question, Thielmann said: Who asked for this new NIE? It had to be either the White House or the CIA, since it clearly wasn't Congress. "It's a very legitimate question for the public, and it shouldn't be classified," he said.

An official report saying that Iraq is an unfolding disaster is not one that the White House would welcome. The logical deduction is that acting CIA Director McLaughlin initiated the new NIE. The former deputy to Tenet, the CIA veteran was passed over by the White House to head the agency when Bush nominated his political ally Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla. Perhaps the NIE is McLaughlin's return volley to the White House. If so, White House spokesman McClellan hit the ball into the net with his insistence that Iraq's future is bright. "The Iraqi people have proven the pessimists wrong every step of the way," McClellan said, spinning furiously. Bush's success in his campaign, if not Iraq's, depends on sustaining the illusion of the rosy scenario.

By Mary Jacoby

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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