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Intelligence Official Sees Little Progress Before Bush Exits

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2008; Page A10

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.

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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.

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