WASHINGTON -- A few hours after George W. Bush dismissed a pessimistic CIA report on Iraq as "just guessing," the analyst who identified himself as its author told a private dinner last week of secret, unheeded warnings years ago about going to war in Iraq. This exchange leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the president of the United States and the Central Intelligence Agency are at war with each other.
Paul R. Pillar, the CIA's national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, sat down Tuesday night in a large West Coast city with a select group of private citizens. He was not talking off the cuff. Relying on a multi-paged, single-spaced memorandum, Pillar said he and his colleagues concluded early in the Bush administration that military intervention in Iraq would intensify anti-American hostility throughout Islam. This was not from a CIA retiree but an active senior official. (Pillar, no covert operative, is listed openly in the Federal Staff Directory.)
For President Bush to publicly write off a CIA paper as just guessing is without precedent. For the agency to go semi-public is not only unprecedented but shocking. George Tenet's retirement as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) removed the buffer between president and agency. As the new DCI, Porter Goss inherits an extraordinarily sensitive situation.
Pillar's Tuesday night presentation was conducted under what used to be called the Lindley Rule (devised by Newsweek's Ernest K. Lindley): the identity of the speaker, to whom he spoke, and the fact that he spoke at all are secret, but the substance of what he said can be reported. This dinner, however, knocks the Lindley Rule on its head. The substance was less significant than the forbidden background details.
The Bush-CIA tension escalated Sept. 15 when The New York Times reported a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was circulated in August (not July as the newspaper reported), spelling out "a dark assessment of Iraq" with civil war as the "worst case" outcome. The NIE was prepared by Pillar, and well-placed sources believe Pillar leaked it, though he denied that at Tuesday night's dinner.
The immediate White House reaction to the NIE, from spokesman Scott McClellan, was to associate it with "pessimists" and "hand-wringers." With Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi at his side at the United Nations, Bush said of the CIA: "They were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like."