FLYING TO MINNESOTA ON AIR FORCE ONE LAST WEEK, WHITE House press secretary Scott McClellan held a "gaggle"--that is, a mini--press conference--with reporters in the back of the plane. The first questions were about Hurricane Ivan and the Dan Rather flap, the compelling news periphera of the moment. Then I asked McClellan about the intelligence community's dire assessment, sent to the President in a July National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), that we seem to be losing the war in Iraq.
"The role of the CIA is to look at different scenarios," McClellan said. But all three CIA scenarios were awful, I pointed out. The best case was "tenuous stability," a continuation of the sapping insurgency we're seeing now.
McClellan began to read from talking points. The "pessimists and naysayers" had been wrong, he said, about the Iraqi people's ability to establish a transitional government, a national council and a transitional law. The "Iraqi people" had little to do with establishing any of those, but McClellan plowed on. A reporter asked if McClellan was saying that the CIA was filled with "pessimists and naysayers," but McClellan wouldn't bite.
Two thoughts occurred to me as the taffy pull continued. For one thing, the President's obvious skepticism about this National Intelligence Estimate stands in stark contrast to his wanton embrace of the NIE he received in October 2002, which said that Saddam probably possessed weapons of mass destruction. That report was produced after Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld pressured the CIA to come up with stronger evidence for invading Iraq. The current assessment is more credible. It comes from a cautious, chastened CIA. It was probably George Tenet's last act as CIA director. And it was written well before the current spatter of dreadful developments, including the U.S. military's acknowledgement that there are areas of Iraq, "no go" zones controlled by the insurgents, where we have decided not to fight. My second thought was pretty wicked: Scott McClellan is beginning to sound like Baghdad Bob, the infamous spokesman for Saddam who announced hallucinatory Iraqi victories as the American troops closed in on Baghdad.
As he rolled across Minnesota last Thursday, Bush told his crowds pretty much the same things he's been saying for months. Saddam was a threat. The world is a safer place now that he's in jail. We must attack the terrorists before they attack us. Freedom has the "transformational power" to make the world a better place. We're not conquerors; we're agents of freedom. As for the current situation, "There's a lot of violence in Iraq, I understand that," he said in Rochester, "but Iraq now has a strong Prime Minister, National Council, and elections are scheduled in January."