Friday, March 7, 2008

Officials Lean Toward Keeping Next Iraq Assessment Secret

Officials Lean Toward Keeping Next Iraq Assessment Secret

By Walter Pincus and Karen DeYoung

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A new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq is scheduled to be completed this month, according to U.S. intelligence officials. But leaders of the intelligence community have not decided whether to make its key judgments public, a step that caused an uproar when key judgments in an NIE about Iran were released in November.

The classified estimate on Iraq is intended as an update of last summer's assessment, which predicted modest security improvements but an increasingly precarious political situation there, the U.S. officials said.

It is meant to be delivered to Congress before testimony in early April by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, according to a letter sent last week by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell to Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.).

Since the Iraq invasion in 2003, the intelligence community has been more cautious than the military and the White House in assessing political, economic and security gains in Iraq. And the war's progress has been a prominent issue in the presidential campaign.

In his letter to Warner, McConnell said that separate estimates are also being prepared on the "terrorist threat to the homeland" - focusing on al-Qaeda and Pakistan - and on "the tactical and longer-term security and political outlook for Afghanistan." Both are scheduled for publication by early fall.

Warner requested all three estimates in January, describing them as key to upcoming policy discussions in Congress.

Intelligence officials said that the National Intelligence Board - made up of the heads of the 16 intelligence agencies plus McConnell - will decide whether to release the Iraq judgments once the estimate is completed. But they made clear that they lean toward a return to the traditional practice of keeping such documents secret.

In internal guidance he issued in October, McConnell said that his policy was that they "should not be declassified." One month later, however, the intelligence board decided to publicly release key judgments from an NIE on Iran's nuclear weapons program, saying that it had weighed "the importance of the information to open discussions about our national security against the necessity to protect classified information."

The estimate, which said Iran had halted the weaponization element of its nuclear program, appeared to undermine the Bush administration's position on Tehran's overall effort. With Bush arguing that Iran remained "a danger," McConnell publicly said the NIE judgment was poorly written because it emphasized a halt in the weapons program rather than Iran's continuing nuclear enrichment.

Key NIE judgments on Iraq had previously been made public, beginning with a highly controversial October 2002 assessment warning that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. That estimate was later proved wrong, with no such weapons discovered in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, and the matter led to charges that the intelligence community had been politicized by the Bush administration.

"Overall, professional life is less complicated if nothing becomes public, and one doesn't have to organize classified assessments always having in the back of one's mind, 'If this is ever leaked, how would it read' " in the news media, a former intelligence analyst said.

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