A growing number of career professionals within national security agencies believe that the situation in Iraq is much worse, and the path to success much more tenuous, than is being expressed in public by top Bush administration officials, according to former and current government officials and assessments over the past year by intelligence officials at the CIA and the departments of State and Defense.
While President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others have delivered optimistic public appraisals, officials who fight the Iraqi insurgency and study it at the CIA and the State Department and within the Army officer corps believe the rebellion is deeper and more widespread than is being publicly acknowledged, officials say.
People at the CIA "are mad at the policy in Iraq because it's a disaster, and they're digging the hole deeper and deeper and deeper," said one former intelligence officer who maintains contact with CIA officials. "There's no obvious way to fix it. The best we can hope for is a semi-failed state hobbling along with terrorists and a succession of weak governments."
"Things are definitely not improving," said one U.S. government official who reads the intelligence analyses on Iraq.
"It is getting worse," agreed an Army staff officer who served in Iraq and stays in touch with comrades in Baghdad through e-mail. "It just seems there is a lot of pessimism flowing out of theater now. There are things going on that are unbelievable to me. They have infiltrators conducting attacks in the Green Zone. That was not the case a year ago."
This weekend, in a rare departure from the positive talking points used by administration spokesmen, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged that the insurgency is strengthening and that anti-Americanism in the Middle East is increasing. "Yes, it's getting worse," he said of the insurgency on ABC's "This Week." At the same time, the U.S. commander for the Middle East, Gen. John P. Abizaid, told NBC's "Meet the Press" that "we will fight our way through the elections." Abizaid said he believes Iraq is still winnable once a new political order and the Iraqi security force is in place.
Powell's admission and Abizaid's sobering warning came days after the public disclosure of a National Intelligence Council (NIC) assessment, completed in July, that gave a dramatically different outlook than the administration's and represented a consensus at the CIA and the State and Defense departments.
In the best-case scenario, the NIC said, Iraq could be expected to achieve a "tenuous stability" over the next 18 months. In the worst case, it could dissolve into civil war.
The July assessment was similar to one produced before the war and another in late 2003 that also were more pessimistic in tone than the administration's portrayal of the resistance to the U.S. occupation, according to senior administration officials. "All say they expect things to get worse," one former official said.
One official involved in evaluating the July document said the NIC, which advises the director of central intelligence, decided not to include a more rosy scenario "because it looked so unreal."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, and other White House spokesmen, called the intelligence assessment the work of "pessimists and naysayers" after its outlines were disclosed by the New York Times.
President Bush called the assessment a guess, which drew the consternation of many intelligence officials. "The CIA laid out several scenarios," Bush said on Sept. 21. "It said that life could by lousy. Life could be okay. Life could be better. And they were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like."
Two days later, Bush reworded his response. "I used an unfortunate word, 'guess.' I should have used 'estimate.' "
"And the CIA came and said, 'This is a possibility, this is a possibility, and this is a possibility,' " Bush continued. "But what's important for the American people to hear is reality. And the reality's right here in the form of the prime minister. And he is explaining what is happening on the ground. That's the best report."
Rumsfeld, who once dismissed the insurgents as "dead-enders," still offers a positive portrayal of prospects and progress in Iraq but has begun to temper his optimism in public. "The path towards liberty is not smooth there; it never has been," he said before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. "And my personal view is that a fair assessment requires some patience and some perspective."
This week, conservative columnist Robert D. Novak criticized the CIA and Paul Pillar, a national intelligence officer on the NIC who supervised the preparation of the assessment. Novak said comments Pillar made about Iraq during a private dinner in California showed that he and others at the CIA are at war with the president. Recent and current intelligence officials interviewed over the last two days dispute that view.
"Pillar is the ultimate professional," said Daniel Byman, an intelligence expert and Georgetown University professor who has worked with Pillar. "If anything, he's too soft-spoken."
"I'm not surprised if people in the administration were put on the defensive," said one CIA official, who like many others interviewed would speak only anonymously, either because they don't have official authorization to speak or because they worry about ramifications of criticizing top administration officials. "We weren't trying to make them look bad, we're just trying to give them information. Of course, we're telling them something they don't want to hear."
As for a war between the CIA and White House, said one intelligence expert with contacts at the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon, "There's a real war going on here that's not just" the CIA against the administration on Iraq "but the State Department and the military" as well.
National security officials acknowledge that the upcoming presidential election also seems to have distorted the public debate on Iraq.
"Everyone says Iraq certainly has turned out to be more intense than expected, especially the intensity of nationalism on the part of the Iraqi people," said Steven Metz, chairman of the regional strategy and planning department at the U.S. Army War College. But, he added, "I don't think the political discourse that we're in the middle of accurately reflects anything. There's a supercharged debate on both sides, a movement to out-state each side."
Reports from Iraq have made one Army staff officer question whether adequate progress is being made there.
"They keep telling us that Iraqi security forces are the exit strategy, but what I hear from the ground is that they aren't working," he said. "There's a feeling that Iraqi security forces are in cahoots with the insurgents and the general public to get the occupiers out."
He added: "I hope I'm wrong."
Staff writers Walter Pincus and Robin Wright contributed to this report.