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Published: Saturday, 9/30/2006

Limited intelligence

THE Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a "hearing" last Monday to permit retired military officers to bash Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld before news cameras.

The witnesses were retired Major Gens. John Batiste, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, and Paul Eaton, who was responsible for training Iraqi security forces, and retired Marine Col. Thomas Hammes, an expert on counterinsurgency warfare.

"Donald Rumsfeld is not a competent wartime leader," General Batiste said. "He surrounds himself with like-minded and compliant subordinates who do not grasp the importance of the principles of war, the complexities of Iraq, or the human dimension of war."

The Democrats in attendance applauded that and similar statements. But they turned a deaf ear when their expert witnesses told them a pullout from Iraq would lead to disaster.

"The result will be a civil war of some magnitude that will turn into a regional mess," General Batiste said in response to a question from Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.). He and the other witnesses said the number of U.S. troops in Iraq should be increased, and that we should be prepared to stay for a long haul.

I took the quotes above from the balanced account of the hearing by the Washington Post's Dana Milbank. But while Mr. Milbank deserves praise, his colleagues at the Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times who did stories last Sunday on a National Intelligence Estimate issued in April deserve a horsewhipping.

The NIE represents the collective judgment of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. The stories insinuated that the intelligence chiefs had concluded the war in Iraq was a mistake. "Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terrorism Threat," said the headline in the New York Times. "Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Hurting U.S. Terror Fight," said the headline in the Washington Post.

Democrats jumped on the stories as "proof" we should get out of Iraq, pronto.

In response to the furor, President Bush declassified Tuesday all the "key judgments" of the NIE.

The NIE made no conclusions about successes or failures in Iraq, which was mentioned in just one paragraph and one bullet point in the four pages of "key judgments."

The "Iraq jihad" is listed as fueling the jihadist movement, but only as one of four "underlying factors," and not the most important.

"We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere," the NIE said.

The Times and the Post reported only the first half of that sentence.

"The Iraq conflict has become the cause celebre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight."

The Times and the Post reported only the first sentence in that bullet point. The reason for the omissions is clear. The omitted clause and sentence say jihadist success in Iraq (the likely consequence of a premature U.S. pullout) would increase terrorism elsewhere. Conversely, a perceived jihadist failure in Iraq would discourage jihadists everywhere. These "judgments" in the NIE undermine Democratic calls for withdrawal from Iraq.

It is clear the stories last Sunday in the Times and Post grossly distorted what the NIE actually said. What is not clear is whether the reporters who wrote them were chumps taken in by the leaker or leakers, or were complicit in the fraud.

After reading the declassified "key judgments," my predominant impression was how banal and pedestrian they are. The conclusions were obvious, but heavily hedged, with a lot of "on the one hand this, on the other hand that." Policy-makers could get as much guidance for future decision-making by flipping a coin.

"The CIA long ago stopped trying to provide top-notch analysis to policy makers," a former CIA analyst said in an e-mail to Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review. "Instead, the focus is on not being wrong. As a result, the analysis that comes out of Langley tends to be nothing but mush that can be interpreted to mean almost anything to anybody."

Some are urging the entire NIE be declassified. The greatest danger of that may be in letting our enemies know how poor is the thinking in our intelligence community.

Jack Kelly is national security writer for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.



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