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US Intelligence Report Leaked to Press Mix of Conflict, Compromise


The leak to American newspapers of a secret National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism prompted President Bush to make public portions of the estimate itself. The NIE, as it is known, is the product of collaboration of all the U.S. intelligence agencies. Producing the intelligence estimate is a trying task.

Portions of the still-classified NIE that surfaced in several American newspapers said the war in Iraq had exacerbated the fight against terrorism.

Former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, who once headed the unit hunting Osama bin Laden, tells VOA the work has been in progress for some time, and agrees that its leaking was politically motivated. "When I resigned in 2004, one of the last briefings I did was for the national intelligence officer who was in charge of preparing this estimate. So it's been under way for the better part of two years, at least 18 months. And so that it came now, it's not surprising that it's finished. But it looks like the leak and the counter-publication by the administration are clearly politically motivated," he said.

Discussing newly declassified portions of the estimate at a Washington forum, U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said the NIE covered far more than just Iraq.

"As you can see, this is a very broad summary of trends in global terrorism. But that is the point. An NIE provides a comprehensive assessment of major issues facing the United States, providing the best intelligence that we can develop for policymakers," he said.

A National Intelligence Estimate is the highest collaborative product of all the country's intelligence agencies. At the request of a policymaker, or on their own initiative, officers from the 16 agencies get together to examine an issue or geographic area in depth. The director of national intelligence then signs off on the estimate and presents it to the president.

Bill Nolte, the former deputy assistant director of central intelligence for analysis, who has worked on up to 30 NIEs in his career, said in an interview, the judgments in the final product can be one of consensus or conflict, depending on how much the different agencies can agree.

"I worked on an estimate years ago, I won't mention the country, where you could almost see the blood on the floor in terms of it was all over the place with, 'we disagree on this, and most people think this but State thinks this way and CIA thinks that way.' I always thought that was a wonderful estimate because the policymakers got a sense that this was a difficult issue that was not going to lend itself to immediate consensus," he said.

Analysts say the declassified findings of the terrorism NIE are not particularly surprising. Director Negroponte says, for example, that al-Qaida has been significantly harmed by counter-terrorism efforts.

"United States-led counter-terrorism efforts have seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qaida and disrupted its operations. However, we judge that al-Qaida will continue to pose the most significant threat to the homeland and U.S. interests abroad by any single terrorist group," he said.

But Scheuer says there is no clear, workable criteria for measuring success against al-Qaida.

"I think that speaks to a problem that we've had for a decade now in that we really don't have any tool or any method of measuring progress against al-Qaida. We have a body count of those people that we've killed and captured, and we extrapolate from that to say, well, we've gotten this many bodies, we must have hurt them. Well, I think that's an assumption, but I'm not at all confident that that's a metric of any kind of reliability," he said.

The estimate also says that the nature of al-Qaida has changed from the organization it was in 2001 to a more decentralized one, with operations carried out by independent sympathizers rather than centrally directed by bin Laden and his associates.

Scheuer says that highlights bin Laden's own vision of himself as an instigator and inspiration for the jihadist movement, rather than as a kind of chief executive officer for a global terrorist movement. He says bin Laden's role of inspirational figure is "monumental," and underscores why he must be killed.