Tuesday, September 26, 2006

"Declassify the Terrorism NIE"

If the administration doesn't have enough hair on its scrotum to prosecute those who are violating federal law by leaking classified national security intelligence information to the obliging New York Treason, at the very least they could follow the Wall Street Journal's advice to declassify the entire National Intelligence Estimate:
As media scoops go, those based on "classified" information seem to have a special cachet. But judging from the latest, selective intelligence leak about terrorism, we wonder if anyone would bother to read this stuff if it didn't have the word "secret" slapped on it.

That's our reaction to Sunday's New York Times report claiming that a 2006 national intelligence estimate, or NIE, concludes that "the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse," according to one of the unidentified "intelligence officials" cited in the article. This is supposedly because the war has provoked radical Islamists to hate America even more than they already did before they hijacked airplanes and flew them into buildings. If this is the kind of insight we pay our spooks to generate, we're in more trouble than we thought.

It's impossible to know how true this report is, of course, since the NIE itself hasn't been leaked. The reports are based on what sources claim the NIE says, but we don't know who those sources are and what motivations they might have. Since their spin coincides rather conveniently with the argument made by Democratic critics of the war, and since this leak has also conveniently sprung in high campaign season, wise readers will be skeptical.

The White House responded yesterday by saying the full NIE on "Trends in Global Terrorism" is far more nuanced and complex than the press reports claim. Spokesman Tony Snow added that one "thing the reports do not say is that war in Iraq has made terrorism worse." So here's our suggestion for President Bush: Declassify the entire NIE.

It's not as if NIEs usually contain sensitive raw intelligence. They're more like Council on Foreign Relations reports, full of consensus analysis and glorified by the mere fact of being "secret." To the extent that any passages might compromise sources and methods, those parts could be redacted or summarized. Meanwhile, disclosure would give the American public a valuable window into the thinking that goes on at places like the CIA. Since some of our spooks are leaking selectively to make the President look bad, Mr. Bush should return the favor by letting the public inspect the quality of analysis that their tax dollars are buying.

Releasing the NIE would also show that the White House has learned something since 2003, which is when the last pre-election bout of selective intelligence leaks began. That leak du jour claimed that an October 2002 NIE had contradicted Mr. Bush's claims in his [RANDO]State of the Union address about Iraq seeking uranium in Africa. We happened to gain access to the complete NIE, however, and reported on July 17, 2003, that the leaked accounts were incomplete and misleading. The Senate Intelligence Committee vindicated our account a year later, but the Bush Administration could have reduced the political damage by declassifying that 2002 NIE immediately.

As for the substance of the 2006 NIE's alleged claims, does anyone doubt that many jihadis are rallying against the American presence in Iraq? The newspapers tell us that much every day. Whether the war in Iraq has produced more terrorist hatred than would otherwise exist, however, is a matter of opinion and strategic judgment.

We recall, for example, that one of Osama bin Laden's justifications for declaring war against the U.S. was American enforcement of sanctions and a no-fly zone against Iraq before the 2003 invasion. Bin Laden didn't need the war to hate us. More broadly, the liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan has deprived the jihadis of two safe havens and sources of funds. So while there are still many al Qaeda-type terror cells out there, there's no reason to believe they are any more dangerous now than before April 2003. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the terrorists who was harbored in Iraq before the war, certainly isn't any more dangerous; he's dead.

The real issue at stake here is a political and policy fight over the future of Iraq. The Democrats claim that Iraq is a "distraction" from the war on terror and so a rapid U.S. withdrawal would leave the U.S. with more resources to fight elsewhere. Mr. Bush says Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror, and that withdrawing would create a vacuum that the Islamists would fill and give them a potential new state-supported base of operations. That's the choice voters really ought to be thinking about as they go to the polls in November, and if the NIE has something useful to say about that debate, Mr. Bush should disarm the selective leakers in his bureaucracy by making it public.
Actually, as I put this together, I see that the White House may be doing just as the WSJ proposes.