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Intelligence Report Predicts Dire Future for Iraq’s Security

February 2, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: It has a bureaucratic title, “Prospects for Iraq’s Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead,” but the so-called National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, has been much-anticipated as a window into how the intelligence community sees the state of play in Iraq, and it comes amid a heated political debate in Washington.

A declassified portion of the report was released today, the first one on Iraq to become public since the controversial estimate that was prepared shortly before the war. It begins in stark terms: “Iraqi society’s growing polarization, the persistent weakness of the security forces and the state in general, and all sides’ ready recourse to violence are collectively driving an increase in communal and insurgent violence and political extremism. Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress during the term of this estimate, the coming 12 to 18 months, we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006.”

For a further look, we’re joined now by Paul Pillar. He served as the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005. He managed a number of intelligence estimates, including on Iraq. He’s now on the faculty at Georgetown University.

And Robert Grenier served as the Iraq mission manager at the CIA from 2002 to 2004.

Welcome to both of you.

PAUL PILLAR, Former Deputy Director, CIA Counterterrorism Center: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s start with you, with an overall assessment of the assessments. Do they pull any punches here?

ROBERT GRENIER, Former CIA Agent: No, actually, I was quite favorably impressed. Given the political climate within which these judgments are being made, I was afraid that there would be a tendency to over-equivocate, to try to sugarcoat the results.

And I don’t think that this estimate, at least as reflected in the key judgments, does that. I think they made some very tough calls, and I think they do it in clear language.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paul Pillar, what portrait of Iraq comes through here?

PAUL PILLAR: It’s a portrait of a very grim and difficult situation, as the national security adviser said today in commenting on it. I agree with Bob. I don’t think punches were pulled. There’s no surprise here for anyone who has been following the Iraq story over these last four years, but it’s a very clear statement of both the current situation and trends.

JEFFREY BROWN: Remind us what this report is. Who does it, and for whom, and how important are they — how seriously are they taken?

PAUL PILLAR: A National Intelligence Estimate is one of a number of different products that the intelligence community produces in which all the constituent agencies, some 16 or so, are involved, under the leadership now of the director of national intelligence. So this is not just the statement of CIA or any one agency.

They seem to have a larger or better cache, National Intelligence Estimates do, than some of those other products. But in terms of how much attention they’re paid, well, in the end, the policymaker decides on policy.

Near-term reconciliation not likely

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, let's take a look at part of what the estimate says about the internal situation in Iraq. We have a graphic here. "Given the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene, Iraqi leaders will be hard-pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation in the time frame of this estimate. And the absence of unifying leaders among the Arab, Sunni or Shia with the capacity to speak for or exert control over their confessional groups limits prospects for reconciliation."

Now, Mr. Grenier, what are they telling us here?

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, I think that what they're telling us here is that the prospects for any near-term reconciliation are virtually nil. I think the best that we can hope for is some progress in setting the predicates, if you will, for an eventual return to some sort of stability in Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see it the same way, virtually nil in the...

PAUL PILLAR: I do. And the significance of this statement is that it's not just a matter of the security problems impairing political reconciliation, but also the political problems. Not only does the security affect the politics, which is, of course, the basis for the so-called surge in Baghdad, but the politics themselves are at this point virtually intractable.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the absence of any unifying leaders, does that jump out at you?

PAUL PILLAR: It does. And it raises the obvious questions about Mr. Maliki and the fact that there really isn't anyone else on the horizon one can point to as a kind of savior.

'Worse' than a simple civil war

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Another issue that's been a great debate, of course, is what to call this. To what extent is it a civil war?

It says, the report says, "The intelligence community judges that the term 'civil war' does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq. Nonetheless, the term 'civil war' accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements."

Now, this requires a little translation, I think. Are they saying there's a civil war or not?

ROBERT GRENIER: I think very clearly they're saying that, yes, of course it's a civil war, except that it's considerably worse than a simple civil war. In fact, what we see in Iraq right now is several different wars, some portions of which, I think, are accurately described as a civil war.

But, in fact, there is violence among a number of groups. In fact, there is intra-Shia violence, as well. There is violence between Kurds and Arabs. So if you're looking for a simple description of the conflict in Iraq, you're not going to find it, and I think that's reflected here in this key judgment. But I think they're also saying just as clearly that, yes, absolutely, this is a civil war.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, yes, they're saying there is, but they don't want to say really there is? I mean, explain that.

PAUL PILLAR: It's kind of a convenient formulation from the administration's point of view, which does not want to use the term civil war. But what the estimate is saying is, as Bob elucidated, we have a civil war, plus a lot of other violence on top of that.

The timing of a troop withdrawal

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. One more issue that's obviously been debated right now is how quickly the U.S. troops might withdraw. So here is what the assessment says about that: "If coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during the term of this estimate, we judge that this almost certainly will lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq."

Now this is clearly going to this current political debate. How do you read what the assessment is saying here?

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, there, too, I think the assessment is very clear. They're saying that, whatever else you might want to say about the U.S. military presence, it does have some elements of a stabilizing effect, that if U.S. troops were to be withdrawn completely and precipitously, then there would be very little to somehow attenuate the sectarian violence that exists right now, particularly in and around Baghdad between Shia and Sunni.

And, if that attenuation were to be removed, then that could lead to a very rapid and downward spiral.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you read it?

PAUL PILLAR: We should point out a couple of things the estimate doesn't say on that score. One, they talk about rapid withdrawal, but what about a not-so-rapid withdrawal?

And another point, which is an important issue in the policy debate, is, OK, these are the untoward consequences that the estimators say would happen if a rapid withdrawal occurs now. What about if it occurs a year from now, or two years from now, or a slow withdrawal three years from now? They don't really address that, and it's not the job of the estimators to address that.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's not the job -- I was going to ask you, I mean, why wouldn't it be their job?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, because their time frame is 12 to 18 months, and so --which is a typical time frame for estimate on a topic, a fast-moving topic of this nature. So it's quite legitimate for the estimators to say, "Look, don't ask us to project what would happen if the U.S. withdraws, say, two years from now."

Possibility of a triggering event

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that they have here is at the end of the -- at least the four-page report that we're able to see -- is a section on triggering events, things that could happen that could make the situation much worse, the assassination of a key religious figure, for example. Do you sense that this is a major concern in the intelligence community?

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, it's difficult for me to speak for the intelligence community at this point, but I would think that it would have to be. After all, just in the last week or so, we had a situation where there was a very large, heavily armed Shiite group that was planning, we are told, to kill the most senior leaders in the Shiite community.

And that would have been precisely this sort of precipitating event that is described here in this report. And I don't even want to thank about what the results might have been, particularly under circumstances, if they had been attributed to the Sunnis.

So, yes, I think that these have to be a great concern on the part of the intelligence community.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just one last thing about, what happens to a report like this? You've been involved in them. And, quickly, we saw both sides of the debate jump on different parts of it. What happens now?

PAUL PILLAR: Now it's history. I mean, the news is old news. It's on the shelf. There will probably be another NIE like it, maybe a year from now, two years from now. The last previous one was in 2004. There is nothing else that the administration has to do or the intelligence community has to do with this.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Paul Pillar, Robert Grenier, thanks for walking us through it.