Intelligence Official Sees Little Progress Before Bush Exits

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2008

Previewing the world for the next U.S. president, a top U.S. intelligence official this week predicted that the Bush administration would make little progress before leaving office on top national security priorities including an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, political reconciliation in Iraq and keeping Iran from being able to produce a nuclear weapon.

A regenerated al-Qaeda will remain the leading terrorism threat, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Donald M. Kerr said. Pakistan's "inward" political focus and failure to control the tribal territories where al-Qaeda maintains a haven, he said, is "the number one thing we worry about."

Kerr's analysis, in a speech Thursday evening that he posited as a presidential intelligence briefing delivered on Jan. 21, 2009, contrasted with more optimistic administration forecasts of rapprochement among Iraq's political forces and a possible Middle East peace agreement in the next eight months. It also seemed at odds with CIA Director Michael V. Hayden's judgment that al-Qaeda is now on the defensive throughout the world, including along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Senate intelligence committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) yesterday said Hayden's assessment, in an interview this week with The Washington Post, was inconsistent with recent intelligence reports to Capitol Hill. In a letter to Hayden, Rockefeller said that he was "surprised and troubled by your comments" and asked for "a full explanation of both the rationale for, and the substance of" the interview.

The CIA defended Hayden's comments. "The director simply said in his interview that progress has been made against al-Qaeda, which remains a very dangerous foe. That judgment should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the intelligence," CIA spokesman George Little said.

Kerr is one of two officials -- the other is National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell -- who deliver the President's Daily Briefing at the White House. Speaking to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Kerr offered "a notional view of some of the issues that will be raised in the Oval Office PDB" for the next president. "Let's imagine for tonight that you have just been sworn in -- you're the 44th president of the United States."

Issues in "your first post-inaugural briefing . . . will, for the foreseeable future, remain the threats and challenges emanating from the Middle East," Kerr said.

None of the three presidential candidates has received a full intelligence briefing. In past election years, the CIA director or his deputy have met with the nominees after the party conventions. This year, following the establishment of the umbrella intelligence directorate in 2005, the briefings will probably be conducted by McConnell and Kerr.

Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) exchanged barbs this week challenging each other's knowledge of events in Iraq. Obama charged that McCain, who supports Bush's Iraq policy, had failed to learn from the administration's mistakes, while McCain attacked Obama for not visiting the war zone for the past two years.

Both have said they would make significant changes in the intelligence community. McCain has said he would set up a new agency, patterned after the World War II Office of Strategic Services, with "a cadre of . . . undercover operatives" to conduct unconventional and psychological warfare and covert action.

Obama has said he would establish a fixed term for the national intelligence director, a presidential appointee, and would institute a national declassification center to reverse the rise in official secrecy under the Bush administration.

In his speech, Kerr cautioned against making intelligence a partisan issue. "The Middle East threats and challenges I've laid out . . . are nonpartisan in nature and will confront our nation regardless of who is in the Oval Office to receive this briefing," he said.

Kerr began the Jan. 21, 2009, "briefing" with Iraq, where he said al-Qaeda is weakened and violence has diminished. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government "has had limited success in delivering government services and improving the quality of life for Iraqis," and "political accommodation will continue to be incremental."

In the Middle East peace process, Kerr said, discussions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have continued and have yielded improved security cooperation. But Hamas has remained popular, and "the Palestinian public has not seen tangible positive changes in key areas . . . such as improving freedom of movement and freezing Israeli settlement expansion," he said.

He said that Pakistan remains a valuable partner determined to strengthen its fight against terrorists, even in the midst of domestic political turmoil. But in response to a question, he said that "we don't know enough" about what is happening in Pakistan.

"One of the concerns we have is that as Pakistan looks inward," the western tribal areas "will be more hospitable to those who would strike us and less hospitable to us in trying to root out that problem," Kerr said.

He said that the intelligence community has no reason to change its mid-2007 judgment that Iran had ceased work on designing a nuclear weapon in 2003. "But since the halted activities were part of an unannounced secret program that Iran attempted to hide," he said, "we do not know if it has been restarted."

Designing weapons was easy, he said, compared with producing fissile material with which to arm them, and Iran's uranium enrichment efforts, suspended in 2003 and restarted in 2006, still face "significant technical problems." While it is possible that Iran could produce enough weapons-grade enriched uranium by 2009, "that is very unlikely," Kerr said, although it "probably" could do so "sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame."

"We assess with moderate to high confidence," he said, "that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."

Staff writers Michael D. Shear and Joby Warrick and researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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