Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Sunday, February 11, 2007

  A sucker's guide to unclassified reports

There's something just a little bit odd about the latest NIE on Iraq. I don't mean the fact (helpfully omitted from news reports last week) that the Bush administration held back its release for months—after failing to produce a new NIE for years. I'm more struck by how calculated and manipulative the unclassified version of this document is. The Key Judgments (the only part declassified) is so incomplete and vague that it must be giving us a grossly misleading picture of what the full NIE has to say.

We've been here before, with the notorious NIE from 2002. And yet, almost as if Bush & Co. had not manipulated public perception of Iraq during the last go round, once again most reporters greeted the unclassified version as if it were a straightforward summary of the intelligence on Iraq. But it is in fact a highly rhetorical document, and far from candid, as a few moments of thought would have shown.

You'd think that the very timing of the document's release would have raised more suspicions than it did.

The Director of National Intelligence took the extraordinary step of releasing the document's key judgments publicly even as the full, 90-page classified version was being delivered to members of Congress and senior government officials.

Why, it's almost as if the White House wanted journalists and the public to draw their conclusions from the little three-page declassified version before Congress had a chance to digest the full NIE.

The entire 90-page, classified NIE...was delivered to Congress yesterday morning after most members had left for the weekend.

In short, we have a highly rhetorical and misleading summary of the NIE, unveiled in a way calculated to draw public attention to itself and away from the full NIE.

We can compare that now to the unclassified executive summary of the Pentagon Inspector General's report on the abuse of pre-war intelligence by Douglas Feith's Office of Special Plans. Released a week after the NIE, it sparked controversy and confusion. Congressional Democrats and Republicans gave diametrically opposed descriptions of the report's findings, such that Sen. Levin immediately pressed the IG to declassify the full report.

So it's a good time to emphasize this obvious but often overlooked point: You cannot trust executive summaries!

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Now this is a long post, so I'll provide you with an executive summary of my main arguments:

News reports have portrayed the NIE as using "tough and unequivocal wording" to give a "starkly pessimistic assessment of the situation in Iraq", while also noting without apparent irony that Bush's backers will find some support for his policy .

Similarly, the report from the Pentagon IG regarding the Office of Special Plans has been interpreted by Democrats as "a devastating condemnation of inappropriate activities". Republicans however claim the report depicts a simple "turf battle", not in any way a devastating condemnation.

Both documents, then, have been given radically opposed interpretations. How is that?

It's possible, ultimately, because the public has access only to executive summaries that provide little information about what the reports actually detail. All parties to the full, classified reports are aware that the public can be played for suckers.

First and foremost, the authors (and editors) of the executive summaries recognize that their freedom to manipulate an executive summary, to exclude, minimize, or misrepresent information, is at its greatest when the public cannot compare the summary to the full report. They took advantage of that flexibility here to produce two highly suspect documents.

Both unclassified versions, of the NIE and of the IG report, are woefully inadequate. To my mind, it's obvious that each is carefully crafted to avoid embarrassing Bush & Co. any more than absolutely necessary. The material in question is truly damaging, so there's no surprise that the summaries provide ammunition to the administration's critics. What is telling, however, is how well under the circumstances these reports shield the administration and advance its point of view. It's a matter of excluding or minimizing inconvenient facts; peddling half-truths; masking the arts of misdirection through the rhetoric of seriousness-of-purpose. It's a question of convincing the reader to believe that a souffle is actually as solid as a brick.

These two documents are an object lesson. As Congress resumes actual oversight of the President it is going to be reviewing a lot of classified reports, potentially devastating to Bush & Co. Don't trust the declassified versions the public is fed. Those who have final say over the executive summaries are likely to be tasked with minimizing any embarrassment to the administration. Bush & Co. have always treated classification and secrecy as a political tool.

"The administration will classify something just because they find it embarrassing or if they don't want to talk about it."

The fashioning of hollowed-out executive summaries, false friends to journalists as it were, is part of the political game they play with national intelligence.

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I was inspired to write on this topic by a remark from Meteor Blades. I'd argued that the horrific details presented in the Pentagon's last quarterly report on 'progress' in Iraq were barely reflected in its anodyne Executive Summary—which is as far as most reporters got in reading the document, to judge by their published reports. MB commented that his first editor once offered some advice that has stayed with him: To skip executive summaries and instead plow through the full reports, because the executive summary is always a graveyard for awkward facts. It's good advice.

With the NIE, though, the Key Judgments (executive summary) is all the public has. So what aren't we seeing? What is actually in that NIE? How much can we deduce about its contents from what is presented in the Key Judgments? Are we even in a position to make credible inferences?

Those are questions that journalists should have asked, though few apparently did. Instead, what they gave us were news stories that mostly just summarized the Key Judgments (for example here and here).

Asking questions that run across the grain of the evidence at hand: It's one of the hardest instincts to train yourself to adopt. Another instinct, perhaps harder to acquire, is to look for what is absent, excluded, or unmentioned.

Now, looking for what is missing from the Key Judgments happens to be the best way out of the seemingly blind alley we opened up by questioning its completeness and accuracy. I found that a few moments of reflection were sufficient to suggest a long list of really remarkable omissions from the unclassified NIE. No doubt you could think of further topics whose absence from the Key Judgments is noteworthy:

In general

  • that at no stage since the US invasion has the security situation in Iraq gotten substantially better; instead it continues to get worse

  • that the US military is widely thought to be near the breaking point because of the occupation

  • that the grounds given by the Bush administration for invading Iraq have crumbled

  • that in the US the Bush administration has almost no credibility left on Iraq

  • that in Iraq the continued presence of US troops is welcomed by almost nobody

  • that aside from dwindling British assistance, there is almost no international support for US policies in Iraq

  • that the occupation of Iraq has damaged the reputation of the US around the world

Internal security

  • that casualties from bombs and IEDs continue to mount

  • that ethnic cleansing has been going on for two years or more in many parts of Iraq

  • that hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in this war

  • that much of the population lives in daily terror of being tortured, raped, and murdered

  • that freedom of movement in Baghdad is increasingly restricted to one's own neighborhood or block, such that some residents have taken to traveling via rooftops rather than in the street

  • that few families have been unscarred by violence

  • that kidnappers and thugs have thrived amidst the violence

  • that the number of factions and groups employing violence in Iraq is almost beyond count, and that alliances shift so often that nobody can describe more than a small part of the picture

  • that Iraqi police and Iraqi army units regularly take part in or facilitate the mayhem

  • that each Iraqi ministry has forces acting independently, fostering violence and corruption

  • that the Interior Ministry has been implicated many times in violence and torture on the model of Saddam Hussein's reign of terror

  • that Iraqi civilians do not trust their own police, regular army units, ministry forces, government officials, or even hospital doctors

  • that Iraqis distrust Americans only slightly less than their own government's thugs

Political stability

  • that Iraqis do not believe the politicians can or will control the mayhem

  • that Prime Minister Maliki has no effective control over the independent ministries of his own government

  • that Maliki has never had a political power base

  • that Maliki has made no progress on his national reconciliation proposal during the last 8 months

  • that Iraqi politicians resent the Bush administration's constant interference in and condescension toward the Iraqi government, including the imposition of Maliki

  • that the Iraqi army is grossly undisciplined, such that American troops prefer not to work with Iraqi units

  • that militias use the Iraqi army to train and equip their own forces

  • that Iraqi officials rarely dare to leave the Green Zone

  • that the Iraqi government has no effective control over large parts of Iraq

Social stability

  • that unemployment in Iraq continues to be obscenely high

  • that many or most small businesses in Baghdad have been shuttered

  • that formerly middle-class families have been impoverished

  • that many families have split up or sent children abroad to avoid sectarian violence

  • that electricity and essential services are in such short supply that much of daily life in Baghdad centers on meeting basic needs (even buying bread is now difficult)

  • that schools and universities are closing down because of threats

  • that Baghdad has been carved up into many small fiefdoms

External security

  • that the US has never been able to control the borders of Iraq

  • that the US has poor and conflicting evidence on what the Syrian and Iranian governments are up to in Iraq

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That's quite a list of major issues that go unmentioned in the Key Judgments. Is it possible that the NIE circumvented all of them? The main purpose of an NIE, we're told, is to "make judgments about the likely course of future events and identify the implications for US policy". Is it possible to ignore the fact that security in Iraq has continually worsened since 2003, for example, while estimating the 'course of future events'?

Most glaringly, there's no indication in the Key Judgments that the US is paying any cost for the continued occupation of Iraq. If this document were your only evidence, you would never suspect that a single American soldier is stationed in Iraq, or that a dime of tax dollars has been spent there.

At a minimum, therefore, we have to conclude that the Key Judgments exclude most of the unwelcome information about the actual situation in Iraq. So much critical material is absent that we cannot reasonably use the unclassified version of the NIE to gauge what is actually present in the classified NIE.

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Parenthetically, we do know about at least one important issue discussed in the classified NIE that is ignored entirely in the Key Judgments:

The classified portions of the NIE is said to include "alternate" judgments that reflect disagreements over whether the Syrian government is directly involved in allowing Islamic militants to cross its border into Iraq and the extent to which Iran is aware of and tolerating al-Qaida activity in its territory.

Here, by contrast, is the totality of what the Key Judgments have to say about Syria and Iran:

Iranian lethal support for select groups of Iraqi Shia militants clearly intensifies the conflict in Iraq. Syria continues to provide safehaven for expatriate Iraqi Bathists and to take less than adequate measures to stop the flow of foreign jihadists into Iraq.

• For key Sunni regimes, intense communal warfare, Shia gains in Iraq, and Iran’s assertive role have heightened fears of regional instability and unrest and contributed to a growing polarization between Iran and Syria on the one hand and other Middle East governments on the other.

You could not have guessed from the fairly sweeping statement about Syrian complicity in the unclassified version, that the classified NIE expresses significant doubt. It's a small point, but illustrative of the bigger issue.

Here's another example. The Key Judgments does mention the "constitutionally mandated referendum" that will decide control of Kirkuk, and that Arabs there are resisting annexation by the Kurds. But it neglects to mention that the referendum is expected to make matters much worse (the ISG report called it a "powder keg" and urged its postponement). For the authors of the Key Judgments, the referendum is not a looming disaster but instead just a general "challenge confronting Iraqis".

Hence it's very unwise to make assumptions about either the details or even the general nature of the NIE based merely upon the Key Judgments. Indeed, the text of the Key Judgments is only 3 pages long, or one-thirtieth the length of the full NIE. Even with the best of intentions, its authors could not hope to summarize the totality of the horror show that is Iraq.

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And what about those intentions, anyway? Is this declassified NIE simply a factual report on the situation faced by the US, or is there an attempt (as in 2002) to persuade readers to come to certain conclusions? I think it's hard to deny that the Key Judgments are highly rhetorical. I'm pretty convinced for example that the long list of omitted topics did not happen by accident.

In any event, the Key Judgments are carefully calculated to lead the reader as quickly as possible past a vast territory of unpleasant realities, and persuade him instead to focus on what good news the future might bring. The clear intent is to put the President's policies in the best possible light.

There are several ways of demonstrating this point. I'll focus on a few:


The NIE's title is "Prospects for Iraq's Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead." The emphasis on a prospective and better future, rather than the depressing present, gives away the game, doesn't it? In the actual Iraq of here and now, the roads are perilous. In the NIE, however, they're merely "challenging" (heavens, we Americans love a challenge don't we?). This should be the first clue that the NIE is a rhetorical document.


The long list of topics excluded from the declassified NIE, a non-cynic might argue, does not necessarily mark it out as an exercise in PR. Perhaps that can be chalked up to the need for brevity, and nothing more.

Well, then what about the many terms that are excluded? The Key Judgments oddly enough has no need of any of the following terms. None of them appear even once in its text:

  • Bush
  • Maliki
  • death
  • casualty
  • bomb
  • IED
  • explosion
  • kidnap
  • rape
  • murder
  • torture
  • Abu Ghraib
  • weapon
  • WMD
  • Green Zone
  • occupation

The anodyne vocabulary of the Key Judgments is pretty remarkable. As I've tried to highlight, the document downplays the violence and mayhem while ignoring the fact of the occupation of this sovereign nation (!) and the harm inflicted on American military forces. Indeed, "US" appears only once in the text ("insecurity leads the Shia to mistrust US efforts to reconcile Iraqi sects...").

While you're pondering that, consider the most astounding omission: George Bush's name appears nowhere. The unnamed of course cannot be blamed.

In any case, I do not see how the total exclusion of Nouri al-Maliki's name can be explained except as an attempt to distract from the Bush administration's failed policies. The Key Judgments do admit in the vaguest sort of way that...

The absence of unifying leaders among the Arab Sunni or Shia with the capacity to speak for or exert control over their confessional groups limits prospects for reconciliation.

But that's as close as the declassified version comes to admitting that Bush's handpicked Prime Minister isn't a unifying leader.

There are very few words used that have negative connotations ('violence' being the main exception), while the Key Judgments employs a surprising array of positive terms for such a dire situation ('reconciliation' occurs over and over).

Undefined measures

Mark Lowenthal, former vice chairman at the National Intelligence Council, has pretty well nailed this point down at the Washington Post. The Key Judgments often uses terms of measurement for which there is in fact no measurement. It is intended to give the false appearance of precision and hard-headedness to what is really no more substantial than smoke rings and pipe dreams. This is about as exact as it gets:

Despite real improvements, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)—particularly the Iraqi police—will be hard pressed in the next 12-18 months to execute significantly increased security responsibilities, and particularly to operate independently against Shia militias with success.

That would be somewhere between 3 and 6 Friedman-units, during which time the Iraqi army may or may not find success, whatever that means.

This muddiness is particularly insidious when it is a question of planning for the future with what appear to be benchmarks for progress. As Lowenthal shows, this rhetorical trick is used throughout. He could have gone much further, for there isn't a hint of a single specific time-frame or benchmark in the Key Judgments.

Civil War

The Key Judgments get tangled up bizarrely in the relatively simple, though hotly contested, question of whether Iraq is mired in civil war:

The Intelligence Community judges that the term “civil war” does not adequately capture the comp
lexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qa’ida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence. Nonetheless, the term “civil war” accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements.

How obscure. The Bush administration has claimed that this means there is not a civil war. Others have argued that the NIE is saying that it is worse than a civil war. The latter appears to be what is intended, however it makes no damned sense. As Thucydides (3.81) remarked 2400 years ago, there is nothing worse than civil war.

Death thus raged in every shape; and, as usually happens at such times, there was no length to which violence did not go...

His narrative demonstrates why there is nothing more complex or unpredictable than civil war. Thus the Key Judgments engaged in sophistry; it was a dodge. For Bush & Co., it was the best possible face that anybody inside the 'Intelligence Community' could put on his absurd refusal to acknowledge the civil war.

During a White House briefing, Hadley was pressed to reconcile that assessment with the president's refusal to describe the Iraq situation as a civil war. "I think I can't do better than the description of the facts on the ground that is in the NIE, with which we agree, and that says this is a complex, difficult situation," Hadley said. "And that's what it is."

At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, noting that he had not read the report, said he agreed with Hadley that "the words 'civil war' oversimplify a very complex situation."

The term 'civil war' oversimplifies, we're told, hence only simpletons will continue to use it. The very last gasp in a long train of denial—a hail mary by the editors of the Key Judgments.

Perversely optimistic interpretations

That brings me to the inexplicable optimism recurring in the Key Judgments. In the first half of the document, where the current situation is described, the main rhetorical strategy is to muffle the horrific details in the ways that I've already outlined. Most of this section is given over to a tedious catalogue of "challenges" that manages to say almost nothing that would upset Aunt Tilly.

The opening paragraph strains hard to present a rosy outlook that has no obvious basis. If you listen carefully, you can hear the neighing of magic ponies that could have an opportunity to carry us to victory:

Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress during the term of this Estimate, the coming 12 to 18 months, we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006. If strengthened Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), more loyal to the government and supported by Coalition forces, are able to reduce levels of violence and establish more effective security for Iraq’s population, Iraqi leaders could have an opportunity to begin the process of political compromise necessary for longer term stability, political progress, and economic recovery.

And the last element in the description of the current situation, as previously mentioned, presents a sophistic interpretation of the 'civil war' that tries in part to push the term out of bounds for future discussion.

The second half of the Key Judgments, the future outlook, ends with several worst-case scenarios but begins with an equal number of optimistic scenarios that "could help to reverse the negative trends driving Iraq's current trajectory." There is no apparent evidence to suggest that any of these scenarios might come about. They amount to nothing more than the hope that Iraqi factions might learn to get along.

Political intrusion

Between the first and second halves of the NIE, there is a flagrant political intrusion.

Coalition capabilities, including force levels, resources, and operations, remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq. If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during the term of this Estimate, we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq...

There is not even a nod in the direction of the widely shared view that the US occupation of Iraq is causing instability. This section exists in the Key Judgments, it seems to me, in order to provide political cover for Bush's escalation plan.

In the debate raging in Washington over Presidents Bush's new Iraq strategy, both his backers and critics will find something to hold on to in the intelligence community's new assessment of the Iraq conflict...

On its face, the new NIE...does not give Bush's new strategy high odds of success....

Still, Bush's backers will find some support for his policy. For one thing, the NIE allows that if U.S. forces, along with strengthened Iraqi forces, manage to reduce the violence level, it could permit political compromises to begin. The estimate also forcefully rebuts the congressional proponents of a speedy withdrawal from Iraq...

It's rather audacious for an intelligence document to insert itself into a political dispute, particularly one that has strong partisan elements. I would not be surprised to learn that the classified NIE was not nearly so provocative and one-sided about the benefits of occupation. I will underline this astounding fact again: In the Key Judgments there is not even a whiff of a cost-benefit analysis for the US occupation of Iraq. To judge by the declassified version, there are no costs...or if there are, they aren't worth considering.

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I don't suppose for a moment that the Key Judgments as we have them were popular with intelligence analysts. My guess is that in the final stages of editing some Bush appointees, or those professionals who have career aspirations, spun the NIE as strongly as they could—particularly the Key Judgments, knowing that the public would not be able to ascertain the real measure of the classified version.

It's worth mentioning, as I commented last May, how painfully aware intelligence professionals are that the Bush administration is hostile to reporting the truth on Iraq:

Ken Silverstein details at Harper's how CIA officers who dared to tell the truth about the deteriorating situation in Iraq were demoted and hounded. That is why, for example, the last NIE on Iraq was produced two years ago. As Silverstein explains, almost nobody at the CIA would be willing to touch the job.

Several of the sources I spoke with said that they were further troubled because it appears that no National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq (NIE) has been produced since the summer of 2004. The last NIE—which the CIA describes as “the most authoritative written judgment concerning a national security issue”—offered a dark but prescient assessment of the U.S. position in Iraq, as disclosed when the highly classified document was later leaked to the New York Times. One former senior agency official told me, “If I were at the CIA now and was asked to work on an NIE [on Iraq], my first response would be, 'How the fuck do I get out of this?' The most courageous, honest person in the place would be reluctant to do it because every time someone says the emperor has no clothes he gets his head lopped off.” Indeed, President Bush practically dismissed the 2004 NIE, responding to questions about the report at a September 2004 press conference by saying: “They were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like. The Iraqi citizens are defying the pessimistic predictions."

In other words, further contributions from the CIA in the form of another round of NIE guesswork would just provide ammunition to those journalists who want to pin the President down with facts.

The latest NIE may very well be as 'dark' as the one from 2004 kept under wraps by Bush & Co. We really have no way of assessing that, unless its details are also leaked to journalists. In any case, it is clear that the administration devoted considerable attention to air-brushing the Key Judgments for your and my benefit.

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I won't bother to analyze the Executive Summary of the IG report newly released by the Pentagon. It is an absurdity. It devotes only 4 sentences to describing its results. It would be virtually impossible, on the basis of this document alone, to figure out what is at issue much less what the Inspector General's findings involved.

The findings are preposterous. As we learn from news reports, the IG confirmed that Douglas Feith gave several inaccurate and grossly and deliberately misleading presentations, including one to the White House, on pre-war intelligence on Iraq—while concealing what he was doing from intelligence professionals. The purpose was to hype unreliable 'evidence' to make a case for war. And yet, rather astonishingly, though Feith's office did not even alert Congress to his activities as required by law, and though the IG described Feith's activities as "inappropriate", never the less he was found to have done nothing illegal.

Thus both Feith and his critics are claiming that the IG report vindicates them.

From the painfulness of the Inspector General's fence-straddling, and the extreme opaqueness of his Executive Summary, I'd surmise that he wished to avoid either embarrassing the administration by ruling that it went to war based upon lies, or offending Democrats by dismissing the allegations. His solution was to bury all the evidence in the classified report, knowing that public debate was impossible based upon his Executive Summary.

Sen. Levin is right; the public needs and deserves to see the full report from the Inspector General. In an attempt in 2003 to justify his activities, Feith went so far as to leak his findings to Stephen Hayes at the Weekly Standard. There's no good reason, then, why the public should not now, at long last, get a full explanation from our Pentagon watchdog about why Feith's findings were wrong and how his activities overstepped the bounds of what is appropriate.

Crossposted from Unbossed


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