Deciphering the National Intelligence Estimate

In this week's intelligence briefing: the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) decoded and a scandal brewing at the Iraqi Parliament! Just reading that makes me realize that my beat is crazy.

The National Intelligence Estimate is what they call a consensus document — a broad agreement among intelligence analysts on their conclusions. What is often interesting about the report are the areas where there is a difference in opinion; this year, it includes Iran and Syria, according to the unclassified version of the NIE released late last week.

There is no question among intelligence officials that foreign-born fighters (terrorists to you and me) are using the Syrian border to cross into Iraq and cause trouble. What is not clear — and this is important as you judge the administration's statements (that's why you watch fair and balanced, right?) — is the role of the Syrian Government in all of this. The big question among Intel people is whether this is Syrian government policy sanctioned by its politicians, or whether this is a function of poor border security — plain old criminal activity and corruption.

On Iran, the debate continues about Al Qaeda members who are there. Are they indeed living under house arrest, and if so, are they still able to call the shots on operations in Iraq and elsewhere? One of my Intel contacts suggested that they may be more capable, even living under house arrest, than most people expect. Often, it’s those little asides buried in a long conversation that make for the most interesting stories.

So, are the Iranians holding these Al Qaeda members as bargaining chips for a later date? It's worth noting that no one has ever been able to speak with complete certainty about this, because it seems to be such an odd and unnatural relationship — Iranians (read Shia here) are sworn enemies of Sunnis (read bin Laden here).

Right now I'm following another story, which belongs in the "truth is stranger than fiction" category. A U.S. official told FOX that they are investigating allegations that a Shiite member of the Iraqi parliament, identified as Jamal jaafar Mohammed, took part in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait. The series of coordinated attacks on December 12, 1983 also destroyed part of Kuwait's international airport and an industrial park.

The blast killed five and wounded 86. Photos from that period show the U.S. embassy complex with a huge crater in the street, resembling an exploded bomb. A large portion of the embassy was obliterated in the attack, which also hit the French embassy.

The still pictures of the scene outside the French embassy show the cars, charred and collapsed, near the entrance. In 1984, Jafaar was also linked by Western intelligence to the hijacking of a Kuwaiti jetliner. He was sentenced to death in Absentia, but fled Kuwait before the trial.

Jafaar eventually made his way back to Iraq and the story goes that he won a seat in Iraq's council of representatives in December 2005. One of my contacts said there was "valid concern" about him, among U.S. officials … the discussion of Jafaar extends beyond the U.S. intelligence community to the State Department. One source told FOX that the secretary of state was even involved at one point. I've been trying to investigate that today, but so far, no comment.

It is reported that Jafaar has left Iraq and sought refuge in Iran, though as I write this, there is no independent confirmation of that claim. However it's worth noting that the Dawa party — the Shiite party of Nouri al-Maliki — claimed responsibility for those bombings back in 1983, but now disavows them.

I am really interested to see how this one turns out. One contact told me that if it is the same guy, there is not much the U.S. can do about it, because from the information available, it appears Jafaar was elected legitimately.

What do you think? What would you like to hear in next week's Intel Briefing? E-mail me and let me know — I'm looking for suggestions!

Catherine Herridge is the Homeland Defense Correspondent for FOX News and hosts FOX News Live Saturday 12-2 p.m. ET. Since coming to FOX in 1996 as a London-based correspondent, she has since reported on the 2004 presidential elections, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Medicare fraud, prescription drug abuse and child prostitution. You can read the rest of her bio here.

Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.