A new NIE on Iraq: From bad to worse

The president dismissed the last one as "just guessing." What will he say now?

By Tim Grieve
Published February 2, 2007 2:43PM (EST)

The last time the CIA produced a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, George W. Bush said the agency was "just guessing as to what conditions might be like" in the country. That was in 2004, and the Bush administration has been dragging its feet on a new NIE ever since. As Ken Silverstein reported for Harper's last July, John Negroponte had put the brakes on the production of a new NIE because he knew that "any honest take on the situation would produce an NIE even more pessimistic than the 2004 version" that Bush had rejected.

No kidding.

The intelligence community finally presented a new NIE to the president Thursday, and it is, indeed, more pessimistic than the 2004 model. The 2004 NIE envisioned three possible scenarios for Iraq's future, ranging from a tenuous stability to something approaching civil war -- in Bush's telling at the time, it said "life could be lousy, life could be OK, life could be better." The 2007 NIE isn't susceptible to such a cheery spin. As the Washington Post reports, sources familiar with the document -- a declassified summary will be released today -- say that it "outlines an increasingly perilous situation in which the United States has little control and there is a strong possibility of further deterioration."

The new document avoids saying whether Iraq is in a civil war. But it does says that Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence is, in the Post's words, "the primary source of conflict and the most immediate threat to U.S. goals." That's a blow to the president and his supporters, who would much rather frame the war in Iraq as a fight against al-Qaida; it's easier to sell the "we're fighting them in Iraq so that we don't have to fight them at home" argument than it is to explain why U.S. troops should be stuck in the middle of a sectarian cross-fire.

On that point, see what Tony Snow had to say when he was asked Thursday about the anti-escalation resolutions now pending in the U.S. Senate: "As you know, and I've said many times, Osama bin Laden thought the lack of American resolve was a key reason why he could inspire people to come after us on September 11th. I am not accusing members of the Senate of inviting carnage on the United States of America. I'm simply saying, you think about what impact it may have."

That's a good idea, thinking about the impact that your actions may have. The president passed up that opportunity the last time he received a pessimistic NIE. Is there any reason for anyone to think he'll treat this one differently?

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Cia Iraq War War Room