How a New Iraq Report Could Hurt the White House

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Getting Gen. John Abizaid, the Pentagon's top Middle East commander, to admit at a Thursday hearing that it's possible Iraq "could move toward a civil war" wasn't the only coup Senate Democrats scored. The same day they also managed to plant another political time bomb, which could explode in the next three or four months over George Bush's conduct of the war, by winning approval for a new National Intelligence Estimate focusing on Iraq's growing sectarian violence.

After Republican Pat Roberts, the powerful Intelligence Committee Chairman, decided to go along with the measure, the Senate unanimously approved a defense spending amendment by Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy ordering up the NIE. But after the senators' prodding, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Negroponte plans to start drafting an NIE right away — without waiting for enactment of legislation calling for it. DNI spokeswman Judi Emmel tells TIME Negroponte agrees that a new NIE is needed and will be drafted. "The DNI believes it is timely to prepare an updated estimate, given a variety of pressing questions concerning Iraq. As a result, we will initiate drafting the NIE shortly," Emmel said. "There have been numerous developments in Iraq since the last National Intelligence Estimate in mid-2004."

Kennedy and five other Democratic Senators had written Negroponte last week requesting the estimate. And Roberts, who until recently was one of the Administration's staunchest defenders on its national security performance, lately appears to be distancing himself from Bush war policies. On Thursday, for example, he criticized Administration attempts to keep classified the role Iraqi exiles played in making the case for invading.

Senate-requested NIEs, like the one done on pre-war intelligence, have already become points of controversy, especially for former CIA Director George Tenet. Critics have charged the one he oversaw was slanted to bolster Administration claims, later proved erroneous, that Iraq had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was developing nuclear arms. But the White House's rosy public projections on Iraq now may not have as friendly an ear with the senior analyst Negroponte has in place to oversee a new estimate. He's Tom Fingar, a former State Department intelligence officer, who disagreed with the old pre-war estimates that warned of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Fingar won't pull punches in assessing whether Iraq is slipping toward civil war, a congressional source says, but he'll be fair in his conclusions.

The intelligence reports and estimates Fingar has produced so far, this source says, "have been dramatically better in explaining what they know, what they don't know and what they think." Meeting with reporters in April, Fingar proudly allowed that he had been "the dissenter on a large number of things" while he was director of intelligence at the State Department. The experience of being in the minority on such hot-button reports as the pre-war estimate, Fingar said, has helped him reform the NIE drafting process. "That has informed the way in which we have approached artificial consensus or premature consensus," said Fingar, now the Deputy DNI for Analysis.

If the new NIE does predict a civil war for Iraq, Democrats probably won't have the analysis as ammunition before the November congressional elections. Negroponte has up to 90 days to deliver the report after Bush signs the defense bill into law, likely at the end of September. Negroponte's spokeswoman did not say when he will complete the document. Even so, war critics believe the secret estimate (an unclassified summary must also be released) will have a powerful impact whenever it's finished. Abizaid's testimony was "extraordinary," says a Senate Democratic aide, but news coverage of it "disappears the next day. An NIE has more impact because everybody would jump on it for a longer time."