Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Thursday, February 15, 2007

  'Lack of alternatives' in the NIE

It turns out that Democratic Senators are criticizing the politicization of the NIE on Iraq along much the same lines as I did in my recent (yes, lengthy) analysis of the document: A sucker's guide to unclassified reports.

I identified several signs that the unclassified executive summary of the NIE, the Key Judgments, is disingenuous, incomplete, misleading, and rhetorical. Like the unclassified version of the 2002 NIE, the latest Key Judgments try to persuade the reader to draw certain conclusions. They put the best possible spin on administration policy.

The organizing 'principle' behind the document was a determination to justify the continued occupation of Iraq and, by extension, a policy of escalation. It was not a candid survey of the situation we face there.

Walter Pincus reports today that behind the scenes in the Senate, Democrats have put John Negroponte on notice about that spin. Good. The document (as we have it) is intolerable.

My interpretation of the Key Judgments

In the earlier piece I identified many issues and terms that, quite remarkably, were excluded from the Key Judgments. For starters, George Bush's name appears nowhere. The most peculiar and glaring things were these:


  • You would not know from this document that US troops are occupying Iraq, or that the US has ever spent a dime there.


  • It doesn't mention US troops, much less any casualties or the damage the military is sustaining from the occupation, or how the military commitment in Iraq affects US policy elsewhere.


  • It avoids discussing violence (such as bombs/explosions/IEDs).


  • It ignores the damage the occupation of Iraq has done to the reputation of the US.


  • Therefore there is no evidence of a cost-benefit analysis of the current occupation.


  • It fails to mention that the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated steadily since the invasion in 2003. There is little historical analysis (change over time).


  • It takes the ludicrous position that it's a mistake to describe the violence in Iraq as a 'civil war' because civil wars are less complex than that.


  • It lists just as many positive future scenarios for Iraq as negative ones, though all the positive scenarios constitute nothing more than the hope that Iraqi factions will somehow learn to get along.


  • One astounding section of the Key Judgments argues that 'Coalition capabilities...remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq,' and that a rapid withdrawal within the next 18 months would lead to a significant increase in sectarian conflict. There is no mention of the possibility that the occupation is actually contributing instability.


  • That section is wedged right at the center of the Key Judgments, between the first half on the current situation in Iraq, and the second half on predictions about the future.


Having pondered the rhetoric of this document for some time, I came to the conclusion that somewhere along the line, probably in the editing process, the NIE was transformed into an apologia for the Bush administrations Iraq policies. It's no longer remotely possible for Bush & Co. to pretend that the situation in Iraq is not grim. What Bush needed most was for the NIE to reaffirm his position that (a) the continued occupation of Iraq is necessary, and (b) that an escalation ought to be tried.

That's exactly what the aforementioned bizarre features of the NIE accomplish. The document completely omits discussion of the cost of the occupation and the idea that it might make things worse rather than better. It doesn't minimize the damage the occupation is doing. It excludes the question entirely.


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Democrats respond

Democrats have been angry for some time with Negroponte for shamelessly stalling the release of the NIE. In mid-January...

a senior intelligence official was expected to brief a closed-door session of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the new NIE; instead, he trotted out a number of lame excuses in explaining why the NIE was still not ready.

I was told that this “dog ate my homework” performance angered Congress, and evidence of that anger was made public yesterday, when four top Democrats—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, and Rockefeller's House counterpart, Silvestre Reyes—wrote Negroponte to demand that the NIE be swiftly completed.


Here is part of the Democratic leaders' letter to Negroponte of Jan. 23, 2007.

However, it now has been six months since we placed the request for the NIE and the community has yet to complete it... Since we registered our request, the situation in Iraq has continued to deteriorate....

The upcoming debate on Iraq is an important one for our troops and our country. The American people have a right to expect that their elected representatives will be fully informed at the outset of the debate in order to increase accountability for results and to increase the chances for a bipartisan consensus on a way forward.

It is in this context that we urge that every effort be made to bring the final deliberations regarding the NIE to a swift conclusion and that the key judgments of this NIE, like the previous Iraq NIE, be made available in unclassified form. The Administration has declassified key intelligence findings on many issues, asserting that declassification in these instances was in the public interest and did not compromise intelligence sources or methods. An unclassified summary of the key judgments of this NIE will be essential to conducting a thorough and complete debate and we believe it can be produced without jeopardizing our intelligence capabilities.


It appears then that throughout January the administration or at least the DNI continued to resist releasing the NIE in the belief that the debate over escalation might be derailed by it. Democrats had to demand repeatedly that the NIE be "finished". Further, you don't have to read very far between the lines to observe that the Democrats feared the administration would refuse to release a declassified summary of the Key Judgments for the public. Indeed, as late as February 1st the DNI was saying that "no decision has been made about declassification" of the NIE. At hearings that day, Sen. Feinstein felt obliged to tell DNI nominee Michael McConnell that she expected the finished NIE to be delivered on the morrow!

In short, the Democrats have been fighting tooth and nail for months to get Bush & Co. to release the NIE that Sen. Kennedy requested last summer, and in particular to get a declassified version before the public.

Today Walter Pincus reports that Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence complained in a closed session last week to the head of DNI, John Negroponte, that the NIE had been politicized. In particular, they're angry that it seems to be intended to make the case for escalation—an issue that the Committee had not asked it to address—while ignoring the cost of the occupation. They had asked for an assessment of whether the continued occupation was making matters worse. The NIE, they believe, shoves that issue aside.

Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have questioned whether the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq gave political advantage to the Bush administration by making "rapid withdrawal" of U.S. troops the only alternative military option the NIE explored....

At a closed briefing about the NIE on Feb. 7, several committee Democrats asked why the key judgments laid out many adverse results of rapid withdrawal while other military options -- such as the redeployment of forces discussed by the Iraq Study Group or even a buildup of U.S. troops -- were not considered.
They were told at the briefing that Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte had requested that the NIE include a discussion of consequences of a coalition withdrawal...

Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the intelligence panel's chairman, said last week that he, too, was concerned because there was no definition for "rapid" and it was unclear why the topic had been included in the estimate. In a July 26, 2006, letter from Rockefeller and others to Negroponte, setting out questions for an NIE, the closest item was listed as: "U.S. Force Posture: In what ways is the large-scale presence of multi-national forces helping or hindering Iraqis' chances of success?"

"Nowhere did anyone ask about sudden withdrawal," Rockefeller said in an interview last week. He said he worried the new NIE "took us back to days we are trying to get away from," when the White House was accused of misusing intelligence.


Pincus also quotes a letter Sen. Feingold sent to Negroponte in which he says that the NIE presents a "false choice" between indefinite occupation and rapid withdrawal. Feingold comments as well that the NIE's presentation "does, however, closely align with the administration's efforts to justify an unsustainable military involvement as the only option."

Negroponte responded to Feingold by stating that the NIE takes this form simply because the analysts themselves chose to assess the option of rapid withdrawal. He denies that he personally interfered in the way the analysis was formulated. Negroponte claims that this was the analysts' preferred method of responding to the Committee's question about whether continued occupation of Iraq contributed to instability.

Feingold, evidently, has accepted that explanation. I do not. The entire rhetoric of the unclassified version of the NIE is designed to exclude any discussion of the costs of the occupation (as I described in detail in my previous post). That exclusion did not just happen by accident. The Key Judgments are very carefully crafted to persuade the reader to ignore the costs of the war--every kind of cost, human and material.

Pincus notes as well that, predictably, Republicans immediately began citing the newly released NIE as evidence in favor of the occupation and the policy of escalation. That is the way the debate about Iraq will shape up in the foreseeable future. The Key Judgments are one of the best weapons that Bush apologists have to justify his policies of more of the same. Democrats need to challenge the NIE aggressively and publicly, to take this weapon away. If the only thing the public hears from the intelligence experts is that they believe, without dissent, that the continued occupation of Iraq is essential, then it will become much harder to make progress toward a withdrawal of troops.

From Unbossed

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