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Ex-official: Intel estimates cherry-picked like a buffet

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With the war on terror a top campaign issue in midterm elections, President Bush has declassified key findings of an intelligence report after parts of it were leaked findng the Iraq war is fueling terrorism.

CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien spoke with Mark Lowenthal, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, on Wednesday about how such reports are prepared.

O'BRIEN: Give us a little insight into how [the National Intelligence Council] works. It's 16 agencies that come together.

How exactly do they compile one report?

LOWENTHAL: Well, what happens is somebody decides we need an estimate, either a policymaker in the executive branch, Congress can ask for an estimate, or the intelligence community can do it because they realize an issue is important. And then the National Intelligence Council is made up of national intelligence officers, the NIOs, who have specific responsibilities for issues or areas.

And they will choose somebody to be the initial drafter of an estimate. It's usually one or two people who draft it. And then it will be sent around to all of the other agencies for their comments, suggestions, changes.

O'BRIEN: So it's a fair reflection of how people who are leading these 16 agencies feel about, in this case, the general war on terror and some parts specifically about Iraq.

Let me ask you a question. It's very unusual, as I mentioned, for a president to declassify the information.

Do you think it was a mistake?

LOWENTHAL: Well, I think he had to because one paragraph -- out of an estimate that apparently is over 30 pages long -- was leaked. And I think the president felt that in order to get the true sense of the breadth of the estimate, you had to show more than .... just that one paragraph.

O'BRIEN: So he was sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place, to some degree?

LOWENTHAL: I think so.

O'BRIEN: What's the point of this estimate? I mean ... who would get it?

LOWENTHAL: Well, this would go to the president. In fact, the director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, will actually sign it to the president, so it's the DNI's report to the president. It would go to senior policymakers in the executive branch. It would go to members of Congress and the intelligence committees and their staffs.

And the point is to give them a sense of where is this issue going over the next several years.

It's not a prediction. It's a way of showing what the trends are and what the likely possible ways in which the trends are moving.

O'BRIEN: It's no surprise that both Democrats and Republicans have jumped on this, because we're only a few weeks out from the midterm elections. I mean I know you're not shocked by that.

LOWENTHAL: No.

O'BRIEN: Let's take a look at some of the declassified key judgments from the report.

This one: "The Iraq conflict has become the cause celebre for Jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global Jihadist movement."

And other parts of that ... seem to be relatively straightforward. But there are other parts in this key judgments that almost contradict, talk about progress made.

At the end of the day, how can both sides claim victory from the same report?

LOWENTHAL: Well, that's one of the charms and problems of an estimate, that estimates are always cherry-picked by policymakers to find the paragraphs they like, that support their point of view. I've described this to somebody once as sort of an intelligence buffet. You can find a supporting document.

And remember, they're not making a prediction as to a single outcome. So they're trying to trace all the probable trends. And so it's not unusual to find wording that will support a variety of points of view. And also the fact that they're looking two and three and five years out also necessitates a sort of broad approach to this.

O'BRIEN: They're looking two or three or five years out. But at the same time, the report, which was done back in ...

LOWENTHAL: April.

O'BRIEN: ... So to what degree is it old news in some ways, parts of the report? ... You look at how things have changed, for example, in Iraq since April. Isn't it, in some ways, as much as it's looking forward also out of date?

LOWENTHAL: Somewhat. For example, the estimate discusses what would happen if [al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi was captured or killed. Zarqawi is dead.

... You have to distinguish between current intelligence -- the reports that go to the president every morning ... In fact, he's getting a briefing right now, if they're on their usual schedule -- and longer-term reports. Longer-term reports will have a longer shelf life. This is -- remember -- this is just trying to capture where a trend is going.

The difficulty about the estimate is once you've read it, if you're a policymaker, it's not always easy to discern from that, what do I do with it? What do I do about this? How do I change my policy?

In fact, I think the two paragraphs in the parts that were released that I found much more significant than the Iraq paragraph that you read, that everyone is excited about is ... that the underlying factors spreading terrorism outweigh the ones that are likely to limit it. Which is actually the paragraph after Iraq. And later on that same page, where they say that we have to do more than kill or capture terrorists.

That, to me, is very significant because it tells policymakers: Here's what you have to think about strategically if you want to win this war.

Those are much more significant paragraphs, but they're not politically compelling, so they've been lost in this debate that we've had since Sunday.


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Former Vice Chairman of National Intelligence Council Mark Lowenthal

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