Estimating National Intelligence

Spc. Zack Rooke tosses his son, DJ, across his shoulder Sept. 25, 2006, at the Camp Shelby family picnic sendoff near Hattiesburg, Miss., for the troops shipping out in October for overseas duty. AP

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
Please be honest and answer this question:

When you heard news reports earlier this week that a National Intelligence Estimate had concluded that the war in Iraq had harmed overall efforts to combat terrorism, did you feel:

A. Vindicated and glad that there was now semi-objective proof that the war has failed in its objective?

B. Suspicious of the information and wary that it was being twisted to make the President look bad?

C. Curious to have the chance to read some original, semi-objective, informed source material for a change?

D. Sad that so many people and so many Americans died in a cause that may not be making our country and the world safer and more secure?

I cycled through all four emotional reactions in about a minute and then stopped at D.

It appears that many of our politicians just kept on cycling, through the spin cycle, that is. Statesmen and stateswomen are supposed to do just the opposite. They are supposed to guide the citizenry past emotion to reason and debate. Quaint notion, isn't it?

The Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi clucked, "With such a devastating and authoritative analysis of the Bush administration's failures in Iraq, the president and the Republican-controlled Congress now have a choice to make. Will they stubbornly follow a failed stay-the-course strategy that America's intelligence community has concluded makes America less safe, or will they finally admit their mistakes and change course?" To what course, exactly, Mrs. Pelosi?

Pelosi compounded this partisan gloating with a stunt. She asked that the House vote to conduct a closed session to discuss these publicly released findings.

The fractious tenacity of Pelosi and her Democratic ilk, however, is completely understandable given this administration's blinkered policy and rhetoric and its own partisanship manipulations.

Indeed, in his press conference on the day he ordered the release of the report's summary, the president tried to spin the report, saying, "I, of course, read the key judgments on the NIE. I agree with their conclusion that because of our successes against the leadership of al Qaeda, the enemy is becoming more diffuse and independent."

Well, simply read the short document and you will know this is but one of many points it makes, a point that doesn't at all reflect the conclusions as whole.

Then came more spin about what the choices are. "We're not going to let their excuses stop us from staying on the offense," he said. "The best way to protect America is defeat these killers overseas so we do not have to face them here at home."

That is a false choice. The choice is not, as the president argues, "continue my policy in Iraq or surrender the whole campaign against terror." And Democrats know that an immediate pullout has unacceptable costs.

Somehow, both sides manage to caricature each other and in doing so they make the caricatures come true. It's some kind of weird political enabling relationship.

The truth is, both sides know they face what moral philosophers call a tragic choice – every option entails morally awful results.

If U.S. forces leave Iraq now, or too soon, Iraqi civilian casualties could soar, the country could be an unstable mess for generations, the mess could spill into other countries and so many past deaths would have to be judged as in vain.

If U.S. forces stay in Iraq or are bolstered to increase the chances of "success," more American lives certainly will be lost though it is wildly uncertain whether the missions to combat terror worldwide or to save Iraq would be helped substantially.

I think very few voters, or at least few non-partisans, perceive the options differently. I think, but I am not sure. The NIE flap was actually not the most discussed issue related to terrorism and the truth this week; that would be Bill Clinton wailing on Chris Wallace, a news story that is all about the past, not the present, not the future, at a time when American soldiers are dying. It's a sideshow.

The newly released National Intelligence Estimate, on the other hand, is an opportunity to assess our choices more clearly. It really doesn't tell us much we hadn't heard. There is nothing magic about it, it is sensible. It just comes from a new source.

But, sadly and predictably, this report is just yet another morsel for our omnivorous two-party partisan spin monster to swallow. It is a document that could help clarify, but instead it becomes merely another Rorschach test for pre-existing positions and, more importantly, emotions.

Dismiss that as trite and obvious, if you'd like. It is, perhaps. Maybe I'm cheaply cynical too, I don't know.

But I think this episode rather clearly shows that this generation of political leaders, and perhaps this generation of voters, did not really process a central lesson of the Vietnam and Watergate eras: when it comes to life and death, don't spin.

I hope there is a way for voters to tell both parties that on Election Day.




Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington, D.C.

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By Dick Meyer
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