The nation's spy chiefs appeared Thursday at a session of the Senate Intelligence Committee, prepared to deliver their annual assessment of global threats, such as al-Qaida and nuclear proliferation.
But the timing of the hearing — a day after President Bush outlined his new Iraq strategy — set the stage for many questions on the way forward in Iraq, and the abilities of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki.
The chair of the intelligence committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), began with a sharp criticism of the plan to increase the U.S. presence in Iraq by more than 20,000 troops, saying it is "not grounded in the realities that we face in Iraq" and describing it as "an unacceptable gamble with additional soldiers' lives."
Senators then tried to determine the views of the intelligence leaders on whether President Bush's plan is a good one.
John Negroponte, the outgoing chief of overall U.S. intelligence efforts, offered this:
"I think over time, the plan has a reasonable time of succeeding."
CIA Director Michael Hayden went a bit further. He said groups of senior officials have been meeting for months, trying to figure out how best to prevent Iraq from becoming a safe haven for al-Qaida, or descending yet further into sectarian violence.
"And what the president talked about, was what we believe to be the best choices available to us, to achieve the kinds of things I just described," Hayden said.
Several senators pressed the intelligence chiefs to weigh in on the merits of other courses of action, such as reducing U.S. troop numbers.
What if Congress were to withdraw funding, asked Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI). Negroponte declined to answer, branding the question "very hypothetical."
But Feingold said it could happen:
"And I would suggest that since we did not have a plan, in my view, when we went into Iraq — we better darn well have a plan for how to disengage from Iraq," he said. "Because the American people have had it with this. We are gonna have to redeploy these troops, I think sooner rather than later. I think it's a reality that's coming."
Sen. John Warner (R-VA), used his time to ask Negroponte about the stability of Prime Minister Malaki's Iraqi government and whether Maliki can live up to Bush administration expectations.
Negroponte's endorsement was less than ringing, and he struggled a bit to answer the question.
"I mean, he's got a tough row to hoe, Senator," he said. "In the sense that his government was put together — it was sort of a negotiated proposition with elements from across the political..."
"And I'm fully aware of that," Warner interrupted, adding: "But I'll just talk about the man himself. The gravitas that he has, or doesn't have?"
"Well, I think he's been been making a very noble effort under very, very challenging circumstances," Negroponte allowed.
Negroponte, Hayden and the other intelligence leaders did spend some time on the topic they'd prepared for — their report on worldwide threats. It judges that al-Qaida remains the greatest threat to U.S. security.
And Negroponte was unusually direct in his testimony on the whereabouts of al-Qaida's leaders, which he described as a "secure hideout in Pakistan."
Negroponte also highlighted the rise of a worrying trend. Shiite terror groups such as Hezbollah pose a growing danger to U.S. interests, he said.