Thursday, October 19, 2006

The National Intelligence Estimate doesn’t say what Bush says it does. How will he handle upcoming secret reports on Iran and Iraq?

Selective Intelligence
The National Intelligence Estimate doesn’t say what Bush says it does. How will he handle upcoming secret reports on Iran and Iraq?
By Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball

Sept. 27, 2006 - The White House’s release of a dire National Intelligence Estimate on global terrorism has illustrated once again how easy it is to publicly misrepresent intelligence-community findings—especially when almost all of the key documents remained shrouded in secrecy.

Only two days ago, while attempting to knock down stories by The New York Times and other publications about the NIE, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow insisted to reporters that the document’s conclusions were entirely consistent with the public statements of the president and other Bush administration officials.

News reports on the NIE “contain nothing that the president hasn’t said,” Snow told reporters in Riverside, Conn. “Obviously, we’re not going to go into what the classified report does say, but … the substance is precisely what the president has been saying.”

But the actual wording of the NIE contains sobering conclusions that, in tone and substance, are very different from what Bush and other administration officials have recently been saying about the government’s progress in the war on terror. Even more potentially problematic for the White House, intelligence-community officials say, there are at least two more secret studies underway that are likely to undercut the administration’s public positions on sensitive national-security issues.

The NIE, which is supposed to reflect the consensus judgment of the U.S. intelligence community, states that the global jihadist movement “is spreading and adapting to counter-terrorism efforts”; that the number of jihadists are “increasing in both number and geographic dispersion,” and that the war in Iraq had become “the cause celebre” for jihadis around the world, “breeding a deep resentment of U.S involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”

None of these downbeat assessments could be found in President Bush’s speech just three weeks ago when he described the government’s war on terror since September 11 in largely upbeat terms.

“Together with our coalition partners,” Bush said, “we’ve removed terrorist sanctuaries, disrupted their finances, killed and captured key operatives, broken up terrorist cells in American and other nations and stopped many attacks before they’re carried out. We’re on the offense against the terrorists on every battlefront.…”

While the president did warn that Al Qaeda “remains dangerous” and that there were more threats from “locally established terrorist cells,” he gave no indication that the intelligence community had concluded that the numbers of actual terrorists had increased, rather than declined, in recent years.

Even yesterday, after four pages of the NIE were declassified and released, White House counterterrorism adviser Frances Fragos Townsend continued to insist that the NIE tracked with other public statements from the administration.

In a briefing at the White House, she pointed reporters to a section of the administration's “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism”—released the same day as the president’s Sept. 5 speech on the subject—which warned that “terrorist networks today are more dispersed and less centralized.” Yet that document too gave no hint that the terrorist movement was now judged by the U.S. intelligence community to be larger than it was five years ago.

Townsend also noted that the White House-released terrorism strategy had stated that the “ongoing fight for freedom in Iraq has been twisted by terrorist propaganda as a rallying cry.” Yet the public national strategy document left out the more significant finding from the secret NIE: that the terrorists’ attempt to use Iraq for their own purposes had apparently succeeded and that by fueling resentment throughout the Muslim world had allowed them to cultivate new supporters.

None of this necessarily undercuts the president’s argument that a U.S. defeat in Iraq would embolden the worldwide jihadi movement and make the country even more vulnerable to future attacks. But it does illustrate the perils for the White House when it mischaracterizes intelligence-community assessments in politically useful ways. Indeed, career intelligence officials this week expressed dismay that documents such as the NIE have been selectively used by policymakers—or leaked for political purposes. “It does get frustrating” to see such documents cited incompletely or quoted out of context, said one U.S. intelligence official, who asked not to be publicly identified because the matter is politically sensitive.

The potential for political misrepresentations may become even greater in the coming months as the U.S. intelligence community completes two more documents with a potential bearing on the Bush administration’s approach to terrorism and related national-security issues. One of the studies is a broad overview of the military and political situation in Iraq; the other is an up-to-date assessment of the progress—or lack thereof—that the government of Iran is making in its alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

National Intelligence Director John Negroponte's office began the Iraq study in the summer following demands by congressional Democrats that such an assessment be produced (although his spokesman maintained that the intelligence czar ordered up the Iraq study on his own and not in response to congressional demands). At the time the Iraq study was first proposed, intelligence sources said there was some pressure on agencies to produce the paper so it would be available before the November congressional elections—even if its contents remained classified, as is customary with such documents.

But as of this week, one official said, Negroponte's office was still exchanging messages with the agencies working on the paper about the document's "terms of reference"—the broad outlines of questions which the new estimate is expected to answer. Given that its structure has still not been agreed, the likelihood of the Iraq paper being completed before the midterm elections has become remote; officials now are talking about finishing it by next January.

Indications are that whenever the new Iraq NIE is complete, it will not offer much optimism for Bush administration policymakers. Like the newly released NIE on terrorism, the upcoming intelligence estimate on Iraq is likely to contrast with public pronouncements of progress from the White House. In secret papers and briefings over the last 18 months, intelligence professionals have repeatedly portrayed a bleak picture in which disorder in Iraq appears to be growing rather than receding.

More than a year ago, a classified CIA paper assessment reported that Iraq had become a venue where a new wave of Islamic militants, many of them from outside Iraq, not only could be indoctrinated in jihad but could practice and perfect urban-warfare skills under live-fire conditions, in some cases presumably before returning to their home countries to carry out planned terror attacks. Two counterterrorism sources said there is no reason to believe CIA analysts have changed their pessimistic assessment since the paper was produced.
In a series of closed-door briefings earlier this summer on Capitol Hill, the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency painted what people familiar with the sessions described as an extremely gloomy assessment of the situation in Iraq; in the briefings, according to the sources, DIA officials described a situation in which insurgent groups are continuing to thrive and grow, increasingly influential sectarian militias are stoking intercommunal violence and the elected Iraqi government is showing itself, at least at the moment, incapable of curbing the violence.

A Defense official familiar with the briefings said that DIA also assessed that if Iraqi security forces could be trained and put into operation according to U.S. and Iraqi government plans then the violence conceivably could be curbed. One official who is familiar with the contents of the DIA briefings commented, however, that administration officials have made similar assertions in the past about Iraqi security forces that, so far at least, have not been validated by events.