Behind the NIE: Scheuer Parses the Intelligence from the Politics

CIA insider points to the truths, half-truths and lack of truth in the NIE. And he weighs in on Clinton’s record.

Michael Scheuer, the former head of the Bin Laden desk at the CIA, interprets the National Intelligence Estimate document on the global terrorist threat, which reflects the consensus view of the intelligence community and is the first comprehensive report of its kind since the October 2002 NIE document on Iraq's estimated weapons program, most of which was released in July 2003. Scheuer, interviewed by National Interest online editor Ximena Ortiz, uncompromisingly describes the nature and scale of the terrorist threat, and the political hedging of the current NIE. He also weighs in on former President Clinton's real counter-terror record.

The Bright Shining Truths

Q: Much of the NIE reflects what you have long been warning about, especially in regards to Iraq War. How much political hedging is done in completing these documents, and could you parse for us the politics from the good intelligence in this latest NIE report?

MS: There unfortunately has been increasing politicization in the NIE throughout the course of my career. On the whole, the NIE accurately presents the terrorist threat, in that it doesn't say that so many young men are willing to blow themselves up because Scheuer has a draft beer after work, or there are women in the workplace or we have primary elections in Iowa. And it begins to talk about anti-Americanism.

The failure that I see in the excerpts was not to take anti-Americanism a step further. Because it leaves the impression that we're hated in the Muslim world because we're Americans. That, thank goodness, is just not the case yet.

We're hated for our policies and their impact. And I thought that the NIE took a step in the right direction and I also thought that the President's words two weeks before in the Rose Garden that we should begin to listen to what Bin Laden and Zawahiri and the others are saying were also a step in the right direction.

The Opacity of Politics

Q: Given the politicization that you describe, does the intelligence have to reach a critical mass, if it is inconvenient for the president, before it would be included in a document like this?

MS: In my experience, and I only worked on half-a-dozen NIEs over the course of my career, but in my experience there were always issues that were difficult to put into finished intelligence. But now what we're seeing, under either kind of administration, Republican or Democrat, are a certain number of issues that just will not be mentioned in the NIE simply because they're sacrosanct to both parties.

The failure of the NIE to describe how firmly we're tied to supporting police states in the Islamic world because we are so dependent on oil in that region-that's something that under recent administrations, whether it was Mr. Clinton or Mr. Bush, is not going to find its way into the report.

The whole question of our relationship with Israel, whether or not that's a good thing is kind of irrelevant. But the reality of it, the factual information is that our relationship with Israel makes it more difficult for us to be accepted on a non-antagonistic basis in much of the Middle East. That can't get into it. So, what we've done is create a situation where the intelligence is not written in a way that is the most useful to the president of either party because there a number of issues that-when we're talking about this particular enemy, the Islamist enemy- that you can not write about with any kind of frankness or regularity in intelligence publications.

Briefer-in-Chief Barely Briefs

Q: Would those issues be presented verbally to the president in your view?

MS: No, I think that's very unlikely. Under Mr. Clinton or Mr. Bush, my impression is, certainly it was the case until I resigned in 2004, that the director of central intelligence had become the briefer-in-chief for the president. And I think we've seen that what that led to was sort of a personal friendship between the director and the president. And I think it's very unlikely that in that kind of relationship the director of central intelligence is going to go to the president and say: "Listen Mr. President, analytically we're really without options in foreign policy as long as we're dependent on the Saudis for oil. That's something that's not going to happen.

It used to be before Mr. Tenet, that the senior briefer for the president was an analyst who had long experience and deep expertise on particular subjects. He or she was kind of designated to go in and tell the president what he needed to know and be ready to absorb whatever discontent the president might respond with.

But that's no longer the case. Now it's much more, I think, telling the president what he wants to hear.

Q: What about the areas where the document doesn't suffer as much from political liability, where there actually is some truth telling on Iraq? Is it your sense that the president would have been confronted with that kind of information earlier on, or that he had really seen it for the first time in the report?

MS: If it's the first time he saw it, what that will tell the American people was that George Tenet didn't carry the message from the CIA.

Because what's in the new National Intelligence Estimate, again, that I've read, is kind of soft, but it's exactly the viewpoint that was expressed from the counter-terrorism center before the invasion of Iraq. The consensus among the terrorism section of the intelligence community was-I think it would have been phrased something like: "Mr. President, whatever the threat is from Saddam Hussein in Iraq, you need to be aware that if you invade Iraq, you break the back of our counter-terrorism policy.