Democrats Criticize Lack of Alternatives in Intelligence Estimate

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007

Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have questioned whether the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq gave political advantage to the Bush administration by making "rapid withdrawal" of U.S. troops the only alternative military option the NIE explored.

The estimate judged that rapid withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq would "almost certainly" increase sectarian violence, intensify Sunni resistance, possibly cause the Iraqi Security Forces to dissolve and allow al-Qaeda to seek a sanctuary to plan attacks inside and outside the country. That assessment came just days before the Senate and House prepared to debate nonbinding resolutions opposing increased troop levels in Iraq.

On Feb. 2, the day the estimate was released, President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, told reporters that the document showed that "an American withdrawal or stepping back now would be a prescription for fast failure and a chaos that would envelop not only Iraq, but also the region, and could potentially, by giving al-Qaeda a safe haven in Iraq, result in risk and threats to the United States."

And in the House debate on the Iraq resolution Tuesday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) cited the NIE judgment on the effects of rapid withdrawal and said, "Iraq would become, as one of my Democratic colleagues said in December of 2005, a 'snakepit for terrorists.' "

At a closed briefing about the NIE on Feb. 7, several committee Democrats asked why the key judgments laid out many adverse results of rapid withdrawal while other military options -- such as the redeployment of forces discussed by the Iraq Study Group or even a buildup of U.S. troops -- were not considered. They were told at the briefing that Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte had requested that the NIE include a discussion of consequences of a coalition withdrawal.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a panel member, wrote Negroponte on Feb. 8: "Setting up a false choice between indefinite military involvement and a rapid, unplanned withdrawal distorts the current debate in Congress and in the country about how best to defend our national security interests in Iraq." He added that such an approach "does, however, closely align with the administration's efforts to justify an unsustainable military involvement as the only option."

Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the intelligence panel's chairman, said last week that he, too, was concerned because there was no definition for "rapid" and it was unclear why the topic had been included in the estimate. In a July 26, 2006, letter from Rockefeller and others to Negroponte, setting out questions for an NIE, the closest item was listed as: "U.S. Force Posture: In what ways is the large-scale presence of multi-national forces helping or hindering Iraqis' chances of success?"

"Nowhere did anyone ask about sudden withdrawal," Rockefeller said in an interview last week. He said he worried the new NIE "took us back to days we are trying to get away from," when the White House was accused of misusing intelligence.

Feingold was so exercised over the issue that last week he put a hold on the Senate confirmation vote on Negroponte's appointment as deputy secretary of state. But in a rapid reply to Feingold's concerns, Negroponte on Friday explained that intelligence estimates do not "evaluate policy options or alternative military strategies." Instead, he said, the goal "is to identify the most likely course of events and variables that might change" them.

The decision to look at rapid withdrawal, Negroponte wrote in a letter to Feingold, was not his own. Instead it came from analysts developing the questions to be explored through the NIE, including whether the presence of coalition troops was a major cause of violence in Iraq. "What happens if you remove this factor -- coalition troops -- from the equation?" he wrote. He explained that the analysts were not evaluating a policy option; instead they were "examining the effect of removing what some had hypothesized to be a critical variable."

Noting that Democratic senators who had requested the NIE had wanted to know if the large number of U.S. and coalition forces help or hurt prospects for success in Iraq, Negroponte said the estimate found that current forces provide some stability and that the situation could deteriorate if they were removed. In that way, Negroponte wrote Feingold, the NIE answered both questions, "indicating the specific contributions coalition forces make . . . and what would happen if they were withdrawn."

These answers satisfied Feingold. He released his hold on Negroponte's nomination, and it was later approved by the Senate. Feingold said he appreciated the NIE's "critically important assessment of the conditions in Iraq," but emphasized that the document did evaluate policy approaches. "Framing the analysis in terms of 'rapid withdrawal,' " he wrote, "presented an oversimplified assessment of one course of action without considering any elements of a redeployment strategy, including shifts in mission, stay-behind counterterrorism or training capabilities or regional diplomatic initiatives."

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