By DALE McFEATTERS
The Bush White House is secretive to a fault, so it was more news than it otherwise might have been when the president, angry at what he considered the politically timed leak of a National Intelligence Estimate, ordered that four pages of key conclusions from the report be declassified.
If what was made public this week is typical of the full report, the fair question is: Why was the report classified in the first place? And intelligence officials interviewed by the Washington media said the report contained nothing surprising. It may even be out of date because the information-gathering for the NIE was completed in February and the report written in April, long enough ago in the capital’s accelerated time continuum that some Democrats appeared to have forgotten that they read it when it first came out.
The NIE doesn’t flatly contradict President Bush’s repeated assertion that we’re winning the war on terrorism, but it can easily be read that way. Indeed, the report doesn’t say anything that the administration, in its darker, more candid moments, hasn’t already said.
In sum, the NIE says that the number of violently inclined Islamic jihadists is growing, dispersing and spreading, and that fighting them will require a global full-court press. It identifies Iraq as the new "cause celebre" for violent jihadists, and tends to confirm Bush’s view of the centrality of Iraq in the war on terror:
"Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight."
In other words, a victory by the U.S.- and coalition-backed Iraqi government would take much of the air out of the jihadist movement.
Release of the report has had two beneficial effects. It has forced the president and his aides, especially press secretary Tony Snow and security adviser Frances Frago Townsend, to vigorously defend the administration’s conduct of the war on terror without falling back on the rubric of "trust us." And it has established what one hopes are more sobering and serious benchmarks for debating the war on terror during the congressional campaigns.
Bush said he ordered the declassification of the NIE so people could form their own conclusions: "You can read it for yourself." The White House should make a regular practice of it.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)