WASHINGTON -- A classified National Intelligence Estimate prepared for President Bush in late July spells out a dark assessment of prospects for Iraq, government officials said yesterday.
The estimate outlines three possibilities for Iraq through the end of 2005, and the worst case is developments that could lead to civil war, the officials said. The most favorable outcome is an Iraq whose political, economic and security stability would remain tenuous.
"There's a significant amount of pessimism," said one government official who has read the document, which runs about 50 pages. The officials declined to discuss the document's key judgments -- concise, carefully written statements of intelligence analysts' conclusions.
It does add up to this: an acknowledgment that we are in deep trouble.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
The intelligence estimate, the first on Iraq since October 2002, was prepared by the National Intelligence Council and was approved by the National Foreign Intelligence Board under John McLaughlin, the CIA's acting director. Such estimates can be requested by the White House or Congress, but government officials said this one was initiated by the intelligence council under George Tenet, who stepped down as CIA director July 9.
As described by the officials, the pessimistic tone of the new estimate stands in contrast to statements by Bush administration officials in recent days, including comments yesterday by White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who asserted that progress was being made in Iraq.
"You know, every step of the way in Iraq there have been pessimists and hand-wringers who said it can't be done," McClellan said at a news briefing. "And every step of the way, the Iraqi leadership and the Iraqi people have proven them wrong because they are determined to have a free and peaceful future."
President Bush, who was briefed on the new intelligence estimate, has not significantly changed the tenor of his public remarks on the war's course over the summer, consistently emphasizing progress while acknowledging that difficulties still lie ahead.
Bush's opponent, Sen. John Kerry, criticized the administration's optimistic public position on Iraq yesterday and questioned whether it would be possible to hold elections in January as planned.
"I think it is very difficult to see today how you're going to distribute ballots in places like Fallujah and Ramadi and Najaf and other parts of the country, without having established the security," Kerry said in a call-in phone call to Don Imus, the radio talk show host. "I know that the people who are supposed to run that election believe that they need a longer period of time and greater security before they can even begin to do it, and they just can't do it at this point in time. So I'm not sure the president is being honest with the American people about that situation either at this point."
The situation in Iraq prompted harsh comments from Republicans as well as Democrats at a hearing into the shift of billions of dollars from reconstruction spending to security.
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called it "exasperating for anybody looking at this from any vantage point." Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said of the overall lack of spending on reconstruction: "It's beyond pitiful, it's beyond embarrassing. It is now in the zone of dangerous."
A spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment on any new intelligence estimate on Iraq.
Each of the officials who described the assessment said they had read the document or had been briefed on its findings. The officials included people who have been critical and people who have been supportive of the administration's policies in Iraq. They insisted they not be identified by name, agency or branch of government because the document remains highly classified.
The new estimate revisits issues raised by the intelligence council in less formal assessments in January 2003, the officials said. Those documents remain classified, but one of them warned that the building of democracy in Iraq would be a long, difficult and turbulent prospect that could include internal conflict, a government official said.
The new estimate by the National Intelligence Council was formally approved at a meeting in July by McLaughlin and the heads of the other intelligence agencies, the officials said.
Its pessimistic conclusions were reached even before the recent worsening of the security situation in Iraq, which has included a sharp increase in attacks on American troops and in deaths of Iraqi civilians as well as rebel fighters. Last week, Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, acknowledged that significant areas of Iraq, including Fallujah and Ramadi, remained effectively outside American control. He said it might be some time before Iraqi forces, with American support, can regain control.
Like the new National Intelligence Estimate, the assessments completed in January 2003 were prepared by the National Intelligence Council, which is led by Robert Hutchings and reports to the CIA director. The council is charged with reflecting the consensus of the intelligence agencies. The January 2003 assessments were not formal National Intelligence Estimates, which means they were probably not formally approved by the intelligence chiefs.
The new estimate is the first on Iraq since the one completed in October 2002 on Iraq's illicit weapons program. That document asserted that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, but those findings, used by the Bush administration as a central rationale for war against Iraq, now appear to have been wrong. A review by the Senate Intelligence Committee that was completed in July has found that document to have been deeply flawed.
The criticism over the document has left the CIA and other agencies wary of being wrong again in judgments about Iraq.
Declassified versions of the October 2002 document included dissents from some intelligence agencies on some key questions, including the issue of whether Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. The government officials who described the new estimate on Iraq's prospects would not say if it included significant dissents.
Separate from the new estimate, Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued other warnings yesterday about the American campaign in Iraq, saying the Bush administration's request to divert more than $3 billion to security from the $18.4 billion aid package of last November was a sign of serious trouble.
"Although we recognize these funds must not be spent unwisely," said Lugar, the committee chairman, "the slow pace of reconstruction spending means that we are failing to fully take advantage of one of our most potent tools to influence the direction of Iraq."
Less than $1 billion has been spent so far.
During a hearing, Hagel said that the State Department request was "a clear acknowledgment that we are not holding ourselves hostage to some grand illusion that we're winning."
He went on to say that the request for redirecting the money "does not add up, in my opinion, to a pretty picture, to a picture that shows that we're winning, but it does add up to this: an acknowledgment that we are in deep trouble."
The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. of Delaware, was far more outspoken. "The window's closing, the window of opportunity," said Biden, among the harshest critics of Bush's policies in Iraq. "I think it's about ready to slam shut." "The president has frequently described Iraq as, quote, 'the central front of the war on terror,' " Mr. Biden went on. "Well by that definition, success in Iraq is a key standard by which to measure the war on terror. And by that measure, I think the war on terror is in trouble."
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