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Report Warns of Worsening Scene in Iraq

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

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I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, international scientists issue a dire report on global warming.

BRAND: First though, another report with troubling implications, this one on Iraq.

Today, the U.S. intelligence community released what's called a National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE. It's an occasional summing up of what we know on a specific subject - Iraq in this case - from all the intelligence agencies. And it comes just as the full Senate prepares to debate an Iraq resolution. Joining us now to talk about the report is NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

Hi, Juan.

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JUAN WILLIAMS: Hello, Madeleine. Hi, Alex.

CHADWICK: Hi, Juan. So tell us, we hear about reports from the intelligence community all the time. Just explain the background. What's so special about this one?

WILLIAMS: It's been 18 months in coming, Alex. People have been waiting, requesting this information for some time. They had hoped to get it in advance over any new strategy that the president was proposing for the war in Iraq. It didn't come in time - to pre-date the strategy, the added so-called surge or escalation, augmentation - whatever spin language you want to attach to it.

But it has come now, and as you mentioned, or Madeleine mentioned, John Negroponte, the outgoing national intelligence director, briefed President Bush at the White House about it yesterday. This is an interesting document in the sense that it comes to no hard conclusions about issues like is there a civil war taking place. But it suggests that, you know what, there are the possibility here for more deterioration of the situation. And it's pretty pessimistic overall, although there are elements that says, you know, here's how things could go properly, here's how things could improve.

BRAND: And as you said, the president was briefed on it last night. Any reaction yet from the White House? Anything public?

WILLIAMS: Well, yes. Not public so much as private conversations that I've had in which they are trying to focus on the good news here, the idea that the new NIE, which of course, Madeleine, represents the best intelligence of all the 16 agencies across the government that collect intelligence, that there's now opportunity here to say, you know what, if sectarian violence has diminished, if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is able to do a better job of limiting corruption, going after even his fellow Shia who are involved in corruption, or militias that are destabilizing the country, then they do see the possibility for improvement. But overall, they don't see that that's likely in the next, you know, in the next few months.

CHADWICK: You know, Juan, I've just read a part of the kind of executive summary of this. What strikes me is kind of the blandness of it all. There's not much here, I think, for either critics or proponents of the administration to get up and say, we should change our thinking in some way because of this NIE. I don't know if it's going to affect the Senate debate over the Iraq resolution.

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I think there's - what you're noticing there, Alex, is there's a sheepishness on the part of the intelligence community. They've been wrong before. Don't forget what happened, looking back to other National Intelligence Estimates, especially intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction.

So what you have here is they've made a real effort in the document, if you'll notice, to highlight contrasting or even contradictory points of view so that no one can say that the intelligence has been skewed or is political. And so what you come away from it is no hard and fast conclusion. Although I don't think there's any getting away from the idea that they see this as a situation that could easily slide into - could further deteriorate.

BRAND: And Juan, what about Democratic leadership on the Hill; what is the new reaction there? Because a lot of senators have been openly skeptical of the NIEs, basically because of what you just mentioned, because of that intelligence from that infamous 2002 estimate about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. So are they equally skeptical about this latest NIE?

WILLIAMS: Well, they just don't see that it has the power that they had hoped. I mean much as you were just saying, as Alex was saying, you know, it doesn't come to any hard and fast conclusion that would drive the discussion in one direction. This is what's going on on so many fronts. You take, for example, everybody's waiting on a report about Iran and exactly where is the evidence that Iran is involved in Iraq? And you know, the outgoing American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, had said some time ago they'd have this evidence presented publicly. It's been delayed. Just like this NIE was delayed. So I think that it's not clear, Madeleine, as to, you know, the power of these documents. But it's just critical - everybody's looking for something to hang their head on.

CHADWICK: Okay. We're on to another report. NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.