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Controversy Dogs Iraq Estimate

The National Intelligence Estimate of 2002 was also clouded in controversy... it "wrongly assessed that the regime of Saddam Hussein had an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and was actively working to build an atom bomb."
by Shaun Waterman
UPI Homeland and National Security Editor
Washington (UPI) Aug 15, 2006
So controversial is the forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, say officials and observers, that even the terms of reference are likely to be the subject of intense, but highly secret, discussion and debate.

A National Intelligence Estimate is the classified distillation of the thinking of the United States' 16 intelligence agencies about a particular problem, and there has not been one on Iraq for more than two years.

The office of the Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte announced earlier this month that it would "shortly" commence work on an updated estimate for Iraq, following requests from Democratic senators, which ended up as a provision in a must-pass Defense bill.

The timing, and the exact nuance of the language used in the classified estimate to describe the situation in and the prospects for Iraq, will be the focus of intense public interest and media scrutiny in an election year -- and both will be in large part determined by the also-classified terms of reference.

The terms are "basically an outline that ... identifies the questions that need to be answered," said Negroponte spokesman Carl Kropf. He told United Press International in a statement that the terms would be drafted by "the relevant national intelligence officer, or NIO," in this case Alan Pino, the NIO for the Near East.

"The draft will be peer reviewed by other NIOs, and then sent to (other) agencies for review," said Kropf.

Collectively the dozen-and-a-half NIOs -- for regions like the Near East or for issues such as science and technology or transnational threats -- make up the National Intelligence Council, the body that distills the reporting of U.S. agencies for senior policymakers.

Paul Pillar, the man who had the Near East job the last time an estimate was produced on Iraq, told UPI there would be a lot of high-level discussion and debate about the exact form of the terms of reference.

On less controversial topics, he said, the draft would be "informally circulated to interested (intelligence) agencies -- just 'This is what we're going with, is this OK?' kind of thing.

"On the bigger, more controversial, topics, the principals would get involved. There might be discussions at the National Intelligence Board," the committee consisting of the heads of the 16 occasionally fractious agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community.

Pillar said that on a topic as important and high profile as Iraq, "Negroponte himself will likely sign off" on the terms of reference.

They are crucial, he said, because they shape the thought processes of the drafters, who take them "very seriously. They will focus their writing on answering the questions."

The language in the Senate bill was negotiated by its Democratic authors with Defense Appropriations kingpin Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

It says the estimate must deal with five issues: "The prospects for controlling severe sectarian violence that could lead to civil war... An assessment of whether Iraq is succeeding in standing up effective security forces, including an assessment of (the impact of militias)... An assessment of whether Iraq is succeeding in creating a stable and effective unity government... (And) the prospects for economic reconstruction and the impact that will have on security and stability."

Pillar said the drafters might want to address additional issues, but were generally careful to answer any questions posed by lawmakers, especially in legislation. The terms of reference "really ought to cover everything that's in (a congressional request), unless you have a damn good reason to leave something out," he said.

One congressional staffer with knowledge of intelligence matters said Roberts "doesn't want to micromanage the process."

"The amendment laid out some broad areas that should be addressed. It is up to (Negroponte's office) if they identify additional issues it is appropriate to address," the staffer said.

The staffer said that Roberts' concerns were based on the Senate Intelligence Committee's exhaustive examination of the flawed 2002 estimate on Iraq -- which wrongly assessed that the regime of Saddam Hussein had an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and was actively working to build an atom bomb.

"The thing that is most important to the chairman is that the analytic tradecraft underlying (the estimate) should be solid," said the staffer. "Care must be taken to properly explain any doubts or uncertainties about the judgments reached."

That kind of care and attention takes time, said the staffer, noting that the 2002 estimate was produced in less than three weeks. The Senate Intelligence Committee's inquiry reported the views of intelligence analysts that "the rapid time period in which (the estimate) was produced negatively impacted the quality of the final document."

The committee reported that, although 1994 guidelines identified three timelines for estimates -- from a "fast track" of two or three weeks through to a "long track" of two months -- NIOs said they would "ideally like about three months."

"You can have it fast, or you have it right," the staffer said.

The legislative language calls for the estimate to be produced within 90 days of enactment of the bill -- which will not now happen until September, putting that date the other side of Election Day.

But 90 days from the date that Negroponte's office announced their intention to produce the estimate would be Nov. 1, just days before voters go to the polls to deliver what will be, in part, their own assessment of the prospects for Iraq.

Negroponte's office would not comment on the estimate beyond a statement outlining the process for drafting it and the terms of reference.

Source: United Press International

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