NIE Report's Impact on the November Elections

In the wake of the release of declassified portions of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on terrorism, NPR senior Washington, D.C., editor Ron Elving talks with Madeleine Brand about how the report — parts of which say the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq is creating an new generation of Isamic extremists — might affect opinion polls and the November midterm elections.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

We're joined now by NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. And Ron, we just heard from McLaughlin that people are cherry-picking what they want from this report. And easy to do and not all of it is public, so why not declassify the whole thing?

RON ELVING: Madeleine, the White House Spokesperson Tony Snow was asked that question this morning. And he said, well, we can't do that because we would compromise the identities of some of our sources and people overseas that we depend on for information.

It's hard to believe that 90 percent of the original report - which is the approximate proportion we have not seen - that has not been declassified, consists of the identities of those people.

So I think the question is going to be continuingly asked, why can't we see the rest of it? Does that not set up the suspicion that something's being hidden? After all, this was kept from the general public from April until now. And that is what sets up, of course, the impact of a leak so that when it comes out partially in the media - as it did over this past weekend - people are going to attach special importance and salience to those portions that are leaked.

That's what the White House is trying to counter right now by releasing some more portions of the report.

BRAND: Right. And it appeared in yesterday's news conference that the president wanted to quiet all this political back-and-forth, this political speculation over what was in the report by declassifying parts of it. But has that backfired?

ELVING: I don't know that it's necessarily backfired. I think they really did have to respond in some way, and that by toughing it out and simply saying you can never see any of this, it's all classified, they would merely heighten people's suspicions.

So it's a calculated risk. And Tony Snow, as I mentioned earlier, has been trying to go carefully and minutely, in fact, through some of the language to suggest that there are many different ways of looking at it.

And that's probably a better argument, a better defense, than to simply say, tight-lipped, you can't see any of it. So I think on balance they're probably well advised to bring out at least some of it and try to at least muddy the waters a little bit around it if not necessarily dispel people's suspicions.

BRAND: And Ron, what is this - how is this playing publicly? The president has spent a great deal of time this month talking about terrorism and calling for public support for his fight against terrorism and the war in Iraq. And some poll numbers have gone up as a result.

So is this going to again have a big political problem for the president?

ELVING: Well, number one it brings us back to talking about Iraq, and not so much about the president's anti-terrorism package that's now before Congress which includes the eavesdropping program - includes the military commissions, the trials of some of the suspects that we're holding right now.

And when it brings the subject back to Iraq, then these questions get raised. And the president right now has to deal with an internal document, something that comes out of the administration that's a counterargument to his own main points about terrorism, which are that the U.S. is safer and that the fight in Iraq is essential to keeping the U.S. safer.

BRAND: And also, how's this going to play politically? Congress is about to head out to campaign for the mid-term elections.

ELVING: Well, it gives the Democrats another weapon. And it gives the Republicans something else they have to explain. And that, I think, is going to lead a lot of Republicans to ask the White House for something new, something fresh, something that they can tell the voters that gives the voters a lift with specific reference to when the United States is going to be able to get out of Iraq.

BRAND: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

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