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CIA said Iraq instability seemed ‘irreversible’

Last November, CIA Director Hayden painted a far bleaker portrait of the Iraqi government than President Bush described in meetings with the Iraq Study Group.
Michael Hayden
CIA Director Michael V. Hayden Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Early on the morning of Nov. 13, 2006, members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group gathered around a dark wooden conference table in the windowless Roosevelt Room of the White House.

For more than an hour, they listened to President Bush give what one panel member called a "Churchillian" vision of "victory" in Iraq and defend the country's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. "A constitutional order is emerging," he said.

Later that morning, around the same conference table, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden painted a starkly different picture for members of the study group. Hayden said "the inability of the government to govern seems irreversible," adding that he could not "point to any milestone or checkpoint where we can turn this thing around," according to written records of his briefing and the recollections of six participants.

"The government is unable to govern," Hayden concluded. "We have spent a lot of energy and treasure creating a government that is balanced, and it cannot function."

Later in the interview, he qualified the statement somewhat: "A government that can govern, sustain and defend itself is not achievable," he said, "in the short term."

Hayden's bleak assessment, which came just a week after Republicans had lost control of Congress and Bush had dismissed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, was a pivotal moment in the study group's intensive examination of the Iraq war, and it helped shape its conclusion in its final report that the situation in Iraq was "grave and deteriorating."

In the eight months since the interview, neither Hayden nor any other high-ranking administration official has publicly described the Iraqi government in the uniformly negative terms that the CIA director used in his closed-door briefing.

Among the 79 specific recommendations the Iraq Study Group made to Bush was withdrawing support for the Maliki government unless it showed "substantial progress" on security and national reconciliation. And it recommended changing the primary mission of U.S. forces from combat to training Iraqis so that combat units could be withdrawn by early 2008.

Urgent message
In effect, the report from the bipartisan group -- co-chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a Republican, and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) -- was an urgent message from the old Washington establishment to the Bush administration to change the direction of its Iraq policy. But Bush did not initially embrace any of the key recommendations, although bipartisan groups in the House and Senate have recently introduced legislation that would make them official U.S. policy.

Instead, the president in January announced that he was sending more troops to Iraq as part of a "surge," which he said would lead to the victory that had so far eluded U.S. forces.

Both Bush and Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, have repeatedly said that there is no military solution to Iraq and that the sectarian strife and the insurgency can be resolved only by the Iraqi government.

Hayden's description of Iraq's dysfunctional government provides some insight into the intelligence community's analysis of Maliki and the situation on the ground. Five days before his testimony, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley had written a memo to Bush raising doubts about Maliki's ability to curb violence in Iraq, but his assessment was not as bleak as Hayden's.

Bush's own optimistic statement to members of the study group did not reflect the viewpoint of his CIA director. But a statement from another administration official interviewed by the panel the same day -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- took it into account.

Asked by former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a member of the study group, if she was aware of the CIA's grim evaluation of Iraq, Rice replied, "We are aware of the dark assessment," but quickly added: "It is not without hope."

A spokesman for the CIA, Mark Mansfield, disputed this account of Hayden's testimony to members of the study group. "That is not an accurate reflection of what Director Hayden said at that meeting, nor does it reflect his view, then or now," Mansfield said.

A senior intelligence official familiar with Hayden's session with the Iraq Study Group said that Hayden told the panel his assessment was "somber" and acknowledged that Hayden had used the term "irreversible." But the official insisted that Hayden instead said, "The current situation, with regard to governance in Iraq, was probably irreversible in the short term, because of the world views of many of the [Iraqi] government leaders, which were shaped by a sectarian filter and a government that was organized for its ethnic and religious balance rather than competence or capacity."

But another senior intelligence official confirmed the thrust and detail of Hayden's assessment, saying that the intelligence out of Iraq this month shows that the ability of the Maliki government to execute decisions and govern Iraq remains "awful."

Reputation as candid briefer
Hayden, 62, a four-star Air Force general and career intelligence officer, has a reputation as a candid briefer. Since 2003, the CIA, which has more than 500 personnel in Iraq to assist in providing intelligence and analysis, has offered the most pessimistic view of any intelligence agency of both the Iraqi government's performance and the situation on the ground there.

Testifying publicly before the Senate Armed Services Committee two days after meeting with the study group, Hayden was more cautious in his conclusions. He said that there were serious problems in Iraq but that the government was "functioning."

Former defense secretary William J. Perry, one of the five Democrats on the Iraq Study Group, confirmed that Hayden told them the Iraqi government seemed beyond repair.

"That was what we'd been hearing everywhere," Perry said. "He just said it a little more clearly and more explicitly than other people."

O'Connor, a Republican, also confirmed Hayden's assessment. She said she did not agree with his conclusion that it was irreversible, but she said she was pessimistic.

"It is a dire situation," she said. "I don't think it has gotten any better. It just breaks your heart. . . . Iraqi people are dying, American soldiers are dying. So far it does not seem we have achieved any kind of security there."

Arriving at the White House on the morning of Nov. 13, members of the study group spent the day interviewing almost every key figure involved in Iraq policy. In addition to Hayden, Bush and Rice, they also questioned Rumsfeld; Gen. Peter Pace, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Zalmay Khalilzad, then U.S. ambassador to Iraq; and, by videoconference from Baghdad, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Bush was joined in the interview by Vice President Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and Hadley, but they did not speak. "We thought with that whole group there, we were going to get briefings, we were going to get discussions," said Perry. "Instead the president held forth on his views on how important the war was, and how it was tough."

In his meeting with members of the study group, Hayden described a situation in which the Iraqi government either would not or could not control the violence consuming the country and questioned whether it made sense to strengthen its security forces. He depicted the United States as facing mainly bad choices in the future.

"Our leaving Iraq would make the situation worse," Hayden said. "Our staying in Iraq may not make it better. Our current approach without modification will not make it better."

According to the written record and others in the room, Hayden at one point likened the situation in Iraq to a marathon. He said there comes a point in each race when the runner knows he can complete the challenge. But Hayden said he could see no such point in Iraq's future.

"The levers of power are not connected to anything," he said, adding: "We have placed all of our energies in creating the center, and the center cannot accomplish anything."

Numerous U.S. generals already had told the study group that success in Iraq could not come without national reconciliation between the Sunnis and Shiites. Hayden agreed, saying: "The Iraqi identity is muted. The Sunni or Shia identity is foremost."

But he clearly saw no end to sectarian killings. "Given the level of uncontrolled violence," Hayden said, "the most we can do is to contain its excesses and preserve the possibility of reconciliation in the future."

He compared the Iraq situation to the prolonged warfare in the Balkans. "In Bosnia, the parties fought themselves to exhaustion," Hayden said, suggesting that the same scenario could play out in Iraq. "They might just have to fight this out to exhaustion."

Sources of violence
Hayden catalogued what he saw as the main sources of violence in this order: the insurgency, sectarian strife, criminality, general anarchy and, lastly, al-Qaeda. Though Hayden had listed al-Qaeda as the fifth most pressing threat in Iraq, Bush regularly lists al-Qaeda first.

Members of the study group said Hayden's stark assessment of the Iraqi government dovetailed with what they had heard in September during their visit to Iraq. There, they met with a senior CIA official who held an equally unenthusiastic view. "Maliki was nobody's pick," the CIA official had said, according to written notes from that meeting. "His name came up late. He has no real power base in the country or in parliament. We need not expect much from him."

Given the constant threats and persistent violence, the official had said, it was remarkable that Iraqi government employees showed up for work.

"We continue to be amazed that the Iraqis accept such high levels of violence," he told the study group. "Maliki thinks two car bombs a day, 100 dead a day, is okay. It's sustainable and his government is survivable."

But the government itself was responsible for some of that violence, the CIA official said. "The Ministry of Interior is uniformed death squads, overseers of jails and torture facilities," he said. "Their funds are constantly misappropriated."

In his testimony, Hayden said that the United States had fundamental disagreements with Maliki's Shiite-dominated government on some of the most basic issues facing Iraq.

"We and the Iraqi government do not agree on who the enemy is," Hayden said, according to the written record. "For all the senior leaders of the Iraqi government, Baathists are the source of evil. There is a Baathist behind every bush."

Several participants in the interview described Hayden as dismayed by the startling level of violence in the country but skeptical of the ability of Iraqi forces -- either the military or the police -- to do anything about it.

"It's a legitimate question whether strengthening the Iraqi security forces helps or hurts when they are viewed as a predatory element," he said. "Strengthening Iraqi security forces is not unalloyed good. Without qualification, this judgment applies to the police."

‘Uneven, in this case, is good’
In one bit of qualified good news, he said that the training of the Iraqi army had produced better results than that of the police. "The army is uneven," he said, adding: "Uneven, in this case, is good."

Hayden's frustration with Maliki provides a context to the administration's continuing efforts to pressure the Iraqi leader into finding a political settlement between Sunni and Shiite factions in Iraq. During one week last month, three senior administration officials visited Baghdad to try to speed up the political process.

In her testimony Nov. 13, Rice recounted her discussions with Maliki in which she bluntly told him the importance of making progress on national unity and reconciliation. Rice said she had told the prime minister, "Pretty soon, you'll all be swinging from lampposts if you don't hang together."

Brady Dennis and Evelyn Duffy contributed to this report.