WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence agencies repeatedly warned the White House beginning more than two years ago that the insurgency in Iraq had deep local roots, was likely to worsen and could lead to civil war, according to former senior intelligence officials who helped craft the reports.
Among the warnings, Knight Ridder has learned, was a major study, called a National Intelligence Estimate, completed in October 2003 that concluded that the insurgency was fueled by local conditions - not foreign terrorists- and drew strength from deep grievances, including the presence of U.S. troops.
The existence of the top-secret document, which was the subject of a bitter three-month debate among U.S. intelligence agencies, has not been previously disclosed to a wide public audience.
The reports received a cool reception from Bush administration policymakers at the White House and the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, according to the former officials, who discussed them publicly for the first time.
President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and others continued to describe the insurgency as a containable threat, posed mainly by former supporters of Saddam Hussein, criminals and non-Iraqi terrorists - even as the U.S. intelligence community was warning otherwise.
Robert Hutchings, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council from 2003 to 2005, said the October 2003 study was part of a "steady stream" of dozens of intelligence reports warning Bush and his top lieutenants that the insurgency was intensifying and expanding.
"Frankly, senior officials simply weren't ready to pay attention to analysis that didn't conform to their own optimistic scenarios," Hutchings said in a telephone interview.
The office of Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte declined Tuesday to comment for this article.
The NIC is the intelligence community's foremost group of senior analysts, and as its chairman, Hutchings presided over the drafting of the October 2003 report and other analyses of the insurgency.
Wayne White, a veteran State Department intelligence analyst, wrote recently that when it became clear that the National Intelligence Estimate would forecast grim prospects for tamping down the insurgency, a senior official "exclaimed rhetorically, `How can I take this upstairs?' (to then-CIA Director George Tenet)"
White argued forcefully in inter-agency deliberations for a more pessimistic description of the insurgency, and his views eventually prevailed. White is now an adjunct scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Revelation of the intelligence warnings come as religious and ethnic violence has escalated in Iraq after last Wednesday's destruction of a revered Shiite Muslim mosque in the city of Samarra.
In Congress on Tuesday, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified that the insurgency "remains strong, and resilient."
Maples said that while Iraqi terrorists and foreign fighters conduct some of the most spectacular attacks, disaffected Iraqi Sunnis make up the insurgency's core. "So long as Sunni Arabs are denied access to resources and lack a meaningful presence in government, they will continue to resort to violence," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
That view contrasts with what the administration said as the insurgency began in the months following the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion and gained traction in the fall. Bush and his aides portrayed it as the work primarily of foreign terrorists crossing Iraq's borders, disenfranchised former officials of Saddam's deposed regime and criminals.
In August 2003, with concerns about the insurgency growing, Bush told reporters: "There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on. ... We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation."
On Nov. 1, 2003, a day after the National Intelligence Estimate was distributed, Bush said in his weekly radio address: "Some of the killers behind these attacks are loyalists of the Saddam regime who seek to regain power and who resent Iraq's new freedoms. Others are foreigners who have traveled to Iraq to spread fear and chaos. ... The terrorists and the Baathists hope to weaken our will. Our will cannot be shaken."
As recently as May 2005, Cheney told a television interviewer: "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."
White, who worked at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, said of the administration: "They've gone through various excuse phases."
Now, he said, "The levels of resistance are pretty much as high as they were a year ago."
Hutchings, now diplomat in residence at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said intelligence specialists repeatedly ran up against policymakers' rosy predictions.
"The mindset downtown was that people were willing to accept that things were pretty bad, but not that they were going to get worse, so our analyses tended to get dismissed as `nay-saying and hand-wringing,' to quote the president's press spokesman," he said.
The result, he said, was that top political and military officials focused on ways of dealing with foreign jihadists and disaffected Saddam loyalists, rather than with other pressing problems, such as growing Iraqi anger at the U.S.-led occupation and the deteriorating economic and security situation.
A former senior U.S. official who participated in the process said that analysts at the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department's intelligence bureau all agreed that the insurgency posed a growing threat to stability in Iraq and to U.S. hopes for forming a new government and rebuilding the economy.
"This was stuff the White House and the Pentagon did not want to hear," the former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They were constantly grumbling that the people who were writing these kind of downbeat assessments `needed to get on the team,' `were not team players' and were `sitting up there (at CIA headquarters) in Langley sucking their thumbs.'"
The October 2003 report on "violence and instability in Iraq" was requested not by the White House but by the U.S. military's Central Command, whose area of responsibility includes Iraq, current and former officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
White said that when analysts from various intelligence agencies first met in mid-2003 to prepare the report, almost all of them argued that the insurgency could be contained. He was the sole exception, he said.
Over the following three months, through five drafts of the report, analysts' views darkened as the insurgency gained steam.
If the original, more optimistic draft had survived, White said, it would have been as embarrassing as the now-discredited October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction.
Even so, he said, the study offered some rays of hope, saying the insurgency might be tamped down if Iraq's economic condition improved. "Little did anyone know that we would be so, so unable to affect that," he said.
Hutchings said that one theme that ran through intelligence analyses as early as 2003 was that there were "signs of incipient civil war."
"The invasion and occupation opened issues for which the Iraqi people had no answer," he said, including the role of religion and relations among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.