U.S. Iraq Policy: Going Down on One NIE?

Sen. Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller i

Sens. Pat Roberts (R-KS), left, and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) (shown at a 2004 Senate hearing) are calling on the White House to declassify the current National Intelligence Estimate. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images
Sen. Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller

Sens. Pat Roberts (R-KS), left, and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) (shown at a 2004 Senate hearing) are calling on the White House to declassify the current National Intelligence Estimate.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senators' Cry: Declassify

 

The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee are calling on the White House to declassify a high-level intelligence assessment on global terror.

 

The review reportedly states that the war in Iraq has contributed to global terrorism.

Senator Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, says the American people should be able to see a public version of the report and draw their own conclusions about its contents. Roberts says media reports have so far given a "false impression."

 

Senator Jay Rockefeller, the committee's top Democrat, says releasing the report would "contribute greatly to the public debate" on counterterrorism policies.

 

— Associated Press

The present political balance in America is poised so delicately between the parties that a single news development can tip it one way or the other.

But will the outcome of November's closely watched congressional contests turn on a single document? One that has not been made public?

That's what many Democrats hope.

The document in question is the National Intelligence Estimate, a joint effort by all 16 intelligence-gathering agencies in the U.S. government. That includes the several spy agencies in the Defense Department as well as the CIA.

NIE reports are compiled periodically to give policymakers (or those with top security clearances) a look at what the intel professionals are seeing, hearing and thinking. The NIE is not quite the rationale for national security policy, but it informs that rationale.

Or at least it should.

What this particular NIE has to say about Iraq, however, is anything but a rationale for current U.S. policy there. It is, rather, a devastating indictment of that policy.

If we are to believe the reports published this weekend by three of America's leading newspapers (based on multiple if anonymous sources and semi-confirmed by top intelligence officials), the latest NIE concludes that the war in Iraq is fanning the flames of global terrorism and creating new enemies for the U.S. in the world of Islam. In other words, fighting there is ultimately counterproductive — whether we "win" or not.

The Bush administration has insisted that by prevailing in Iraq, the U.S. will demonstrate its determination to defeat terrorism globally. Put another way, failure to achieve victory in Iraq will "send a message" that the U.S. is weak, encouraging terrorists to attack the U.S. homeland and providing them a staging area for doing so.

But the NIE offers a kind of rebuttal to this scenario, a rebuttal that rises from the very intelligence agencies on which our government presumably relies. It says that the administration has it all backwards. The struggle in Iraq is not a test of will (as the president repeatedly insists) but an issue of direction.

The NIE leads us to believe that a policy devoted to "staying the course" in Iraq at all costs for "as long as it takes" will not break the back of global terrorism but strengthen the movement.

So how powerful will this counterpoint be, with the election just six weeks away? Or, put another way, will people even know about it?

The president's side of the debate must now be familiar to every American with a TV set. He has proclaimed it to the nation over a month of almost continual speeches, news conferences and announcements. The centerpiece of the month was a shift in strategy on the handling of high-profile terror suspects like Khalim Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Long held at secret CIA "black sites," these suspects are now to be tried as soon as possible, using military commissions to be created by Congress in the next few days.

For a moment, it appeared this rush had met a roadblock in the Senate. Several prominent Republicans with strong ties to the military — including a former Vietnam POW, Sen. John McCain of Arizona — objected to rewriting the Geneva Conventions because it could bring harm to future U.S. prisoners overseas. They found considerable support.

But the roadblock became a speed bump. After a few days of negotiating, the White House apparently agreed not to flaunt its revisions of international agreements, while reserving the right to do most of what it wanted regarding surveillance, detention, interrogation and rules of evidence at trial.

This week, Congress will attempt to bundle all these issues and resolve them in a single anti-terrorism measure. It will provide the administration with a response to the Supreme Court's adverse ruling in the Hamdan case in June. It will also grant the administration an almost unfettered hand in dealing with terror suspects, including the worst of the guilty and the most unjustly accused. And it will provide an opportunity for Republicans to pillory any Democrats who dare to oppose it.

But in the midst of all this procedural and political success — for which GOP strategists have been richly and rightly praised — the ruling party is suddenly confronted with an unwanted news story. Just when the administration game plan is successfully diverting public attenion and media focus from Iraq, the NIE pops up. It is a document the administration has not shared with us — and has no plans to share with us.

It has the potential to bring Iraq back to center stage. Moreover, it could cast as harsh a light on the justifications for continuing the war as the missing WMDs threw on the justifications for starting it.

The question now is whether the document makes a difference or fades back into invisibility. Democrats cannot compete with the power of the president to command national attention. There can be no equivalent of his campaign over the month of September, no comparable airtime or coverage. There cannot even be proper public inspection, study and debate over a classified document.

Without that public airing, the NIE could become one more sound in the background noise as the war grinds on, and the electorate looks for anything else to think about.

Ron Elving co-hosts It's All Politics, a weekly podcast, with NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin.

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