Reality intrudes again. President Bush and his allies keep insisting that the invasion of Iraq was essential to winning the fight against anti-American Islamic jihadists. The government’s top experts on terrorism and Islamic extremism disagree. As The New York Times reported on Sunday, a National Intelligence Estimate produced earlier this year noted that the Iraq war has fueled Islamic radicalism around the globe and has caused the terrorist threat to grow. In other words, Bush’s invasion of Iraq has been counterproductive. Or put this way: the ugly war in Iraq that has claimed the lives of thousands of American troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians has placed the United States more at risk.
Times reporter Mark Mazzetti noted in his front-page article that he had spoken to “more than a dozen” U.S. government officials and outside experts who had either seen the NIE or who had participated in its creation. That’s a lot of footwork. But he did not quote from the document itself, except to note that the NIE describes a radical Islamic movement of “self-generating” cells. (An NIE is the intelligence community’s most definitive assessment of a major strategic issue and is supposed to represent the consensus view of the government’s various intelligence agencies. This particular NIE is the first evaluation of global terrorism since the invasion of Iraq.)
The White House has claimed that the Times‘s account of the NIE did not represent the complete document. And Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte has declared–in response to the news of this NIE–that the Bush administration has scored significant success against the “global jihadist threat.”
Well, is the threat now worse because of Bush’s war in Iraq? Does the NIE say the war has made the jihadist threat more dangerous? The White House could resolve this very quickly by declassifying the NIE. If the report contains nuances or success stories not conveyed by the Times report (and those of other newspapers), releasing the report will clear things up.
The report is classified. But an NIE of this sort is probably more of an analytical document than a run-down of secret intelligence. And, certainly, the real secrets in the report–particularly references to sources and methods–can be redacted.
There is precedent for a partial release of an NIE. Months into the war in Iraq, when no WMDs had been found and the Bush administration was being accused of having misrepresented the prewar intelligence to hype the Iraq threat, the White House did declassify portions of the NIE on Iraq’s WMDs. The point was to show that the intelligence community had informed the White House that Saddam Hussein was sitting on stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. But that flawed NIE also contained dissents and conflicting information indicating there were serious questions about the WMD case. And before the White House released these slices of the NIE, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney authorized Scooter Libby to disclose potions of the NIE to friendly reporters–most notably, Judith Miller of The New York Times. Libby, though, made sure not to share the dissents and contradicting material. Libby’s highly selective leak to Miller did not end up helping the White House, and Bush’s press operation subsequently made public whole chunks of the NIE. That, too, didn’t get Bush out of the where-are-the-WMDs jam, for these excerpts showed there had been questions about key parts of the WMD case. (For more on all this, see the book I co-wrote with Michael Isikoff: Hubris: the Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.)
If the White House was able to release parts of that NIE on WMDs, it can do the same with the NIE on Iraq and terrorism. It may, though, not be motivated to do so.
INFO ON HUBRIS: Tom Brokaw says “Hubris is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq.” Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, “The selling of Bush’s Iraq debacle is one of the most important–and appalling–stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it.” For more information on Hubris, click here.