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What Did the NIE Really Say?

By Jack Kelly

The New York Times published some more classified information Sunday, this time a leak of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) prepared in April. The NIE represents the collective judgment of the 16 agencies in the U.S. intelligence community.

The headline said: "Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terrorism Threat," but that's not exactly what reporter Mark Mazzetti said in his story. Here's his lead paragraph:

"A stark assessment of terrorism trends by American intelligence agencies has found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks."

Mr. Mazzetti indicated he hasn't seen the NIE himself, but is reporting on what his sources have told him is in it. But people who leak classified information have agendas, and that agenda rarely is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Alas, that rarely is the agenda of New York Times reporters either, when they have a story they think will embarrass the Bush administration.

"The New York Times characterization of the NIE is not representative of the complete document," said Peter Watkins, a White House spokesman.

"Several officials I've spoken with who worked on...the final assessment actually reached a different conclusion than what is being reported," said "Mac Ranger," a former Army intelligence officer.

Mr. Mazzetti said he got his lead from the opening section of the report, which "cites the Iraq war as a reason for the diffusion of jihad ideology."

While no reasonable person can deny that the Iraq war is "a reason" for the diffusion of Islamist ideology, there is nothing in the language of the report itself that Mr. Mazzetti quotes that indicates the intelligence chiefs consider the war in Iraq to be the primary reason for the spread of Islamist ideology, as the headline implies.

Mr. Mazzetti quotes "one American intelligence official" as saying the report "says that the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse." But that official was apparently unable to supply Mr. Mazzetti with specific language from the report that draws that conclusion.

One can believe (as I do) that Iraq "has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism" without believing the Iraq war has been, on balance, a liability in the war on terror. Those foreign jihadists who go to Iraq, survive and return home pose a greater threat than they otherwise would have. But Iraq also has been the graveyard of thousands of jihadists, among them some of al Qaida's best.

And the "overall threat of terrorist attacks" likely would have grown after Sept. 11 even if there had been no war in Iraq; arguably more so, because the jihadists engaged in Baghdad and Ramadi could not simultaneously be in New York or Chicago.

Attacking our enemies does tend to make them angrier. But they were angry enough to start with, and failing to respond to their attacks can have worse consequences than defeating them in battle.

Anyway, all we know about the NIE is what the leaker and the New York Times want us to know. That's not enough.

"The American people deserve to know, to the maximum extent possible, the actual findings and conclusions in this NIE and not depend on partial reports and leaks, which could be driven by all sorts of hidden agendas," said Andrew Cochran of the Counterterrorism Blog.

Mr. Cochran proposed that President Bush authorize the 9/11 Commission to review the NIE and release an unclassified version "as soon as possible."

I'm for declassifying as much of the NIE as can be done without breaching security. But the Bush administration should not be put in the position of having to choose between protecting itself (by declassifying the report and exposing distortions) or protecting our nation's secrets.

What should trouble us most about the New York Times story is not the dubious proposition it advances that the war in Iraq has made the struggle against Islamic radicalism more difficult. It is that there are people in the intelligence community who use secret intelligence for partisan political purposes.

Even in the unlikely event that the judgments of the NIE were accurately reported, we should not treat them as Holy Writ. It was essentially the same fellows, remember, who missed the warning signs of 9/11, and who concluded that Saddam's possession of WMD was a "slam dunk." Mr. Cochran noted that the 1997 NIE on the terrorist threat -- the last before 9/11 -- mentions Osama bin Laden only as a "terrorist financier," and mentions al Qaida not at all.

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