In August of this past year, Congress ordered the creation of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a document that synthesizes the very best information held by all 16 of America’s spy agencies. With opinion against the war at an all-time high, definitive information from the intelligence community about the Bush Administration’s failures in Iraq would strengthen the case for withdrawal.
The NIE, not surprisingly, never happened. Six and a half months later, intelligence czar John Negroponte’s office is saying that the NIE is “well under development” and will be released at the end of this month. Some are arguing that the timing is suspicious, and that the NIE was effectively held hostage while the Bush Administration decided what to do with the mess in Iraq. And now that Bush has decided on sending 20,000 more troops and will make his case to the nation tomorrow night (in what some are calling the biggest speech of his presidency), it’s safe to finally release the info. It’s easier, after all, to convince the country when it doesn’t know the facts.
And that’s why this situation reminds so many of the pre-war experience with the NIE.
In late 2002, with Congress under pressure to give President Bush authorization to go to war, former Senator Bob Graham, then head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked George Tenet for the NIE on Iraq. Graham was stunned to learn that the White House hadn’t requested one and none existed. In essence, the White House had been planning for war with Iraq for months, yet hadn’t gone to the intelligence community to get their best and most formal estimation of the state of the intelligence.
Graham requested a NIE. It was produced in three weeks, becoming the much-discussed October 2002 NIE. (The three week gestation period was a rush job, but still puts the lie to the current six month wait.) Most of the inaccurate claims that made the case for war were prominently placed, including several in the executive summary. (Those inaccurate claims, and the NIE, are discussed fully in the Mother Jones Iraq War Timeline.) Qualifications, concerns, and dissents (mostly from the State Department) were buried. History will judge it as a shameful and deceitful document, intended to help the Bush Administration make the case for war and in violation of the true spirit of the intelligence community. One of the primary authors of the NIE later told Frontline: “This wasn’t an inquiry into how can Iraq threaten the United States; it wasn’t an inquiry into what are Al Qaeda sources of support. It instead was basically research in support of a specific line of argument… What was the purpose of it? The purpose was to strengthen the case of going to war with the American public . I regret having had a role in that.”
In the end, it didn’t matter much. According to the Washington Post, “no more than six senators and a handful of House members” read past the NIE’s five-page executive summary. The full document was kept in a guarded vault, where lawmakers could go to read it, if they showed up in person and without staff. Most couldn’t be bothered. Maybe that’s why they are pushing for a legit and timely NIE this time around. Timely is out of the question; legit remains to be seen. But if history is any judge, you shouldn’t bet on it. Once again, Congress will have to decide on a way forward without the proper tools to evaluate the options, leaving a neutered entity to do its work in the shadow of an Administration that has all the facts, and thus, all the power.