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What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?

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Mary Ratcliff
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There has been a lot of discussion in the 2008 presidential campaign about who actually read the classified National Intelligence Estimate report published by the Intelligence Community in October 2002 before Congress voted to give Bush authorization to attack Iraq. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards both have been asked about whether they read the document before they voted. And now this question has been asked of the Republican candidates who voted on the Iraq resolution.

Yet, the press is missing the really big story about what was known from the Intelligence agencies before Bush took us to war. Recently, the Senate Intelligence Committee under the leadership of Senator Rockefeller quietly published the long awaited Part 2 of the Senate Intelligence report consisting of the intelligence provided to the Bush administration before the war started.

Long after the October vote, the Intelligence community published two more critical National Intelligence Estimates in January 2003 that spoke to the bleak chance there was for creating a viable government and society in Iraq if the United States invaded.

Like the earlier NIE, these later assessments were not something that the Bush administration had asked for, but something requested by others who knew how risky the situation was. The October 2002 NIE had been requested by Senator Bob Graham, the Democratic head of the Senate Intelligence Committee at that time. These later NIEs were requested by the State Department as they realized the Bush administration really didn't understand how much of a hornets nest they were about to kick.

Paul R. Pillar, who in those days leading up to the war was the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia in the State Department, writes in The National Interest this month about these newly released assessments.

But the weapons estimate was one of only three classified, community-coordinated assessments about Iraq that the intelligence community produced in the months prior to the war. Don’t feel bad if you missed the other two, which addressed the principal challenges that Iraq likely would present during the first several years after Saddam’s removal, as well as likely repercussions in the surrounding region. After being kept under wraps (except for a few leaks) for over four years, the Senate committee quietly released redacted versions of those assessments on its website May 25, as Americans were beginning their Memorial Day holiday weekend.

I initiated those latter two assessments and supervised their drafting and coordination. My responsibilities at the time as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia concerned analysis on political, economic and social issues in the region. A duty of any intelligence officer is not only to respond to policymakers’ requests but also to anticipate their future needs. With the administration’s determination to go to war having become painfully clear during 2002, I undertook these assessments to help policymakers, and those charged with executing their policies, make sense of what they would be getting into after Saddam was gone.

These assessments were not something that would have affected the decisions of those in Congress, because by that time, the only Decider left was President Bush and his advisors. But those assessments were quite prescient in the problems that would be faced if Bush went forward with his war of choice.

In contrast, the other two assessments spoke directly to the instability, conflict, and black hole for blood and treasure that over the past four years we have come to know as Iraq. The assessments described the main contours of the mess that was to be, including Iraq’s unpromising and undemocratic political culture, the sharp conflicts and prospect for violence among Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian groups, the Marshall Plan-scale of effort needed for economic reconstruction, the major refugee problem, the hostility that would be directed at any occupying force that did not provide adequate security and public services, and the exploitation of the conflict by Al-Qaeda and other terrorists.

And as Pillar flatly states, invading Iraq was always a bad idea, and not just because the Bush administration made such a hash of the aftermath.

The assessments support the proposition that the expedition in Iraq always was a fool’s errand rather than a good idea spoiled by poor execution, implying that the continued search for a winning strategy is likely to be fruitless. Some support for the poor execution hypothesis can be found in the assessments, such as the observation that Iraq’s regular army could make an important contribution in providing security (thus implicitly questioning in advance the wisdom of ever disbanding the army). But the analysts had no reason to assume poor execution, and their prognosis was dark nonetheless.

Pillar notes that these assessments had very little information that would jeopardize national security, yet it took three years and a change in party control in Congress to get these assessments released. And after four years, the predictions of the Intelligence Community in these suppressed NIEs has been proven largely correct.

You can read the declassified NIEs here (pdf).

h/t War&Piece
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Mary Ratcliff is a senior writer and editor at The Left Coaster and Pacific Views.
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