President Bush will unveil his new Iraq strategy Wednesday night, in a prime-time address to the nation. As the White House puts the finishing touches on his speech, the nation's top intelligence analysts are toiling away on a document of their own — a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq.
This is the first NIE on Iraq in two and a half years. But it won't be ready until the end of the month, after the President proposes his new Iraq policy. That's leading some to question whether the NIE is being held back, to avoid embarrassing the president.
The Iraq NIE will look at sectarian violence, the stability of Iraq's government, economic trends and the state of the insurgency. It has been about six months in the making. Congress called for this NIE back in August. The original deadline was late December, but intelligence officials say it's running about a month late.
"The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq is well under development," according to Chad Kolton, spokesman for outgoing U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte. "It is still on track to be completed by late January of this year."
The NIE has taken half a year to produce because it's being held to the highest analytic standards, Kolton said — and because it represents the best work of all 16 U.S. spy agencies — not because of political considerations.
"I just think it's just silly to think that the timing of it would be at all related to any other events that are going on," he said.
Intelligence experts consulted for this story confirm that it's not unheard of for NIEs to be several months in the making. But Wayne White — a veteran of NIE process who ran the State Department's Iraq intelligence team from 2003 to 2005 — says this may not fall into that category.
"Some NIEs were put on the boards and there was no urgency associated with the delivery of the NIE, and they could string out for as long as this one has," White said. "But on any topic that was extremely hot, that was very unusual. And so I think this is unusual."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) authored this summer's amendment calling for an updated NIE. He's a senior Democrat on the Armed Services committee. Kennedy believes the intelligence community's leaders are "dragging their feet" on producing a new estimate. Specifically, he's furious that delivering the NIE at the end of this month means it will arrive after the president's speech.
"That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever," Kennedy said. "For the intelligence community not to have that available to the president, and not to have it available to the Congress, when we are going to give a reaction to the president's proposal is, I think, irresponsible."
Spokesmen for Negroponte point out the president gets a daily intelligence briefing. It's not as though he's operating in the dark regarding what his intelligence advisers think. The spokesmen also argue that it's better to get the Iraq estimate right than to rush it. That argument does not sway Senator Kennedy.
"'Course it's better to get it right!" he said. "But the last one was July 2004. It is January 2007. We should have had a report in 2005, we should have had a report in 2006, we ought to have this in 2007."
Despite the intense amount of interest it's likely to generate, it's not clear whether any of the Iraq NIE will be made public. CIA veteran Paul Pillar oversaw the last Iraq NIE, in 2004. He says there are legitimate concerns about protecting sources and methods.
"But in something like Iraq — where unfortunately the dynamics and the problems of the situation there are all too obvious — I don't see any major reason why the judgments of the community should not be made public."
And the judgments — the conclusions section — of the new Iraq NIE are likely to be bleak, according to several intelligence experts.
"The contacts I have suggest that if it doesn't come up with a rather pessimistic prognosis, people are smoking something," said White, the retired State Department official.
Paul Pillar, the CIA's former Iraq analyst puts it this way: "Any objective analyst writing about Iraq is going to present a bad news picture. Because that's the reality in Iraq."
Pillar adds: "Anything with a title like 'National Intelligence Estimate' on a subject like Iraq, will not be very welcome to the Bush administration, no matter when it comes out."