By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, July 18, 2007; 2:00 PM
Nearly six years after President Bush pledged to capture him "dead or alive," Osama bin Laden is not only still at large, but he and his al-Qaeda organization have apparently benefited greatly from Bush's decision to invade Iraq.
That's not just me saying so. It's the inevitable conclusion from the declassified summary of a White House intelligence report released to great fanfare yesterday.
It turns out that bin Laden and his al-Qaeda leadership are safely ensconced in Pakistan. They're still trying to attack us. And the U.S. occupation of Iraq has provided them with a potent rallying cry, recruiting tool and training ground they would not have had otherwise.
The White House has time and again used the specter of al-Qaeda to cow Capitol Hill into doing its bidding. Similarly, Bush and his aides have lately gone to great lengths to conflate the multifaceted insurgency in Iraq with al-Qaeda. After all, when it's Bush vs. al-Qaeda, how many Americans will side with al-Qaeda?
The report's release shot al-Qaeda back into the headlines. But this time, the al-Qaeda stories have a potentially devastating twist for the administration: As it turns out, Bush's policies may have helped bin Laden more than they've hurt him.The Analysis
Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "The White House faced fresh political peril yesterday in the form of a new intelligence assessment that raised sharp questions about the success of its counterterrorism strategy and judgment in making Iraq the focus of that effort.
"Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush has been able to deflect criticism of his counterterrorism policy by repeatedly noting the absence of any new domestic attacks and by citing the continuing threat that terrorists in Iraq pose to U.S. interests.
"But this line of defense seemed to unravel a bit yesterday with the release of a new National Intelligence Estimate that concludes that al-Qaeda 'has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability' by reestablishing a haven in Pakistan and reconstituting its top leadership. The report also notes that al-Qaeda has been able 'to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks,' by associating itself with an Iraqi subsidiary.
"These disclosures triggered a new round of criticism from Democrats and others who say that the administration took its eye off the ball by invading Iraq without first destroying Osama bin Laden's organization in Afghanistan."
Abramowitz also notes that "Al-Qaeda's participation in the Iraqi violence has figured particularly heavily in recent administration arguments for a continued U.S. troop presence there, because White House strategists regard it as a politically salable reason for staying and continuing to fight."
But, he writes: "Some terrorism analysts say Bush has used inflated rhetoric to depict al-Qaeda in Iraq as part of the same group of extremists that attacked the United States on Sept. 11 -- noting that the group did not exist until after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. These analysts say Bush also has overlooked the contribution that U.S. actions have made to the growth of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has been described as kind of a franchise of the main al-Qaeda network headed by bin Laden."
Abramowitz quotes former CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar as saying: "Iraq matters because it has become a cause celebre and because groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Qaeda central exploit the image of the United States being out to occupy Muslim lands."
Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "Nearly six years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives expended in the name of the war on terror pose a single, insistent question: Are we safer?
"On Tuesday, in a dark and strikingly candid two pages, the nation's intelligence agencies offered an implicit answer, and it was not encouraging. In many respects, the National Intelligence Estimate suggests, the threat of terrorist violence against the United States is growing worse, fueled by the Iraq war and spreading Islamic extremism."
Shane writes that "the stark declassified summary contrasted sharply with the more positive emphasis of President Bush and his top aides for years: that two-thirds of Al Qaeda's leadership had been killed or captured; that the Iraq invasion would reduce the terrorist menace; and that the United States had its enemies 'on the run,' as Mr. Bush has frequently put it. . . .
"The headline on the intelligence estimate, said Daniel L. Byman, a former intelligence officer and the director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, might just as well have been the same as on the now famous presidential brief of Aug. 6, 2001: 'Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.'"
Mark Mazzetti and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "At the White House, [Frances Townsend, Bush's homeland security adviser,] found herself in the uncomfortable position of explaining why American military action was focused in Iraq when the report concluded that main threat of terror attacks that could be carried out in the United States emanated from the tribal areas of Pakistan."About the Timing
Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The release of limited findings from the latest consensus of the nation's intelligence community, arriving at a critical moment in President Bush's battle with the Democratic-led Congress over an unpopular war in Iraq, follows a pattern of White House releases of select intelligence findings at critical junctures in the war debate.
"The White House maintained that nothing in the assessment, titled 'The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland,' points to an imminent attack. But the sum of it warns of a 'persistent and evolving threat over the next three years' posed especially by Al Qaeda, 'driven by their undiminished intent to attack the homeland.' . . .
"Democrats said the document showed mostly that the administration has failed to weaken Al Qaeda. And other critics suggested that stirring a renewed fear of terrorism served the White House's political purposes in the midst of the heated Iraq debate."Rallying the GOP?
John Bresnahan writes for Politico: "The Republican establishment is rallying to the defense of President Bush and his controversial war strategy, with some GOP members of Congress cherry-picking intelligence about a resurgent Al Qaeda to buy at least two more months for Bush's Iraq strategy.
"Republican leaders on Tuesday pounced on a newly released National Intelligence Estimate to argue that the increasingly powerful and ominous Al Qaeda presence justifies current troop levels in Iraq at least until September."... Or the Democrats?
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement: "The unclassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate released today leads me to two conclusions: one, the Bush Administration's national security strategy has failed in its most basic responsibility -- to capture or kill Usama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, the men who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, and eliminate Al Qaeda as a threat to the homeland; and two, there is even greater urgency to the need to change course in Iraq. . . .
"Changing our strategy in Iraq and narrowing our military mission to countering Al Qaeda terrorism -- as a bipartisan majority in the Senate now favors -- would be the single greatest thing we could do to undermine Al Qaeda's ability to use Iraq as a recruiting and propaganda tool fueling the growth of regional terrorist groups."Getting Worse
Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "Intelligence officials attributed the al-Qaeda gains primarily to its establishment of a safe haven in ungoverned areas of northwestern Pakistan. Its affiliation with the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, the report said, has helped it to 'energize' extremists elsewhere and has aided Osama bin Laden's recruitment and funding."
That's a dramatic contrast from the NIE on global terrorism written in April 2006, which "described a downward trend in al-Qaeda's capabilities since bin Laden and the rest of the group's surviving leadership were driven from their sanctuaries in Afghanistan by U.S. military forces in December 2001. That report, like the one issued yesterday, said that the Iraq war was a primary recruitment vehicle for al-Qaeda. But the earlier report concluded that al-Qaeda's operations had been disrupted and its leadership was 'seriously damaged.'"
Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe: "Some national-security specialists were surprised by the frank assessments.
"For the last few years intelligence officials have suggested much of Al Qaeda's central leadership has been neutralized, and that the primary national security threat came from splinter groups bin Laden inspired but doesn't command. Yesterday's assessment summary concludes that the same organization that meticulously planned and executed the September 11th attacks is alive and well."About Al Qaeda in Iraq
Greg Miller and Josh Meyer write in the Los Angeles Times that "senior U.S. intelligence officials contradicted . . . remarks by Bush, including his statements equating those who carry out bombings in Iraq to the Sept. 11 hijackers.
"The report's principal author, Edward Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats, said during a briefing with reporters that Al Qaeda in Iraq did not exist before the U.S. invasion. He also said that the group's 'overwhelming focus' remained confined to the conflict in Iraq."
Richard Willing quotes Sen. Joseph Biden in USA Today: "'Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a Bush-fulfilling prophecy (that) has helped al-Qaeda energize extremists around the world,' Biden said. That's why, he said, the United States must refocus on al-Qaeda and get U.S. troops out of Iraq."The White House Spin
At a photo op yesterday, Bush spoke briefly on the subject: "Al Qaeda is strong today, but they're not nearly as strong as they were prior to September the 11th, 2001, and the reason why is, is because we've been working with the world to keep the pressure on, to stay on the offense, to bring them to justice so they won't hurt us again; to defeat them where we find them.
"And now we find them in Iraq. These killers in Iraq, people who will kill innocent life to stop the advent of democracy, people who are trying to get on our TV screens on a daily basis to drive us have got ambitions and plans. These people have sworn allegiance to the very same man who ordered the attack on September the 11th, 2001, Osama bin Laden. And they want us to leave parts of the world, like Iraq, so they can establish a safe haven from which to spread their poisonous ideology. And we are steadfast in our determination to not only protect the American people, but to protect these young democracies."
Frances Townsend, Bush's homeland security adviser, held a press conference yesterday about the report; here is the transcript.
Her opening remarks were full of praise for the president: "Almost six years after September 11th, we have not been attacked, and I am often asked why." Townsend's answer: "Because the President has made clear that job number one is to protect the American people from an attack, and his strategy for doing this has been clear and unambiguous."
And here is the transcript of Tony Snow's briefing from yesterday.Opinion Watch
The New York Times editorial board writes: "It had to happen. President Bush's bungling of the war in Iraq has been the talk of the summer. On Capitol Hill, some of the more reliable Republicans are writing proposals to force Mr. Bush to change course. A showdown vote is looming in the Senate.
"Enter, stage right, the fear of terrorism. . . .
"The message, as always: Be very afraid. And don't question the president."
But the Times argues: "If the report is given an honest reading, it is a powerful rebuke to Mr. Bush's approach to the war on terror. It vindicates those who say that the Iraq war is a distraction from the real fight against terrorism -- a fight that is not going at all well."
Fred Kaplan writes for Slate: "One major reason for al-Qaida's resurgence, according to the report, is its 'association with' al-Qaida in Iraq. (Note, by the way, that these two organizations are said to be 'associated' or 'affiliated' with each other; contrary to what Bush has said in recent speeches, they are not the same entity.) This affiliation 'helps al-Qaida to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.' . . .
"Many times, President Bush has said that we're fighting the terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to fight them here. It is an absurd argument in many ways. But the NIE reveals that the opposite is the case -- that because we're fighting them in Iraq, we are more likely to face them here."
Josh Marshall blogs: "The simple fact is that the full picture is now clear. The White House was repeatedly warned in advance that attacking Iraq would strengthen al Qaeda. We did and it did. That's where we are now. The White House has no excuse and no answer."
Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Oh, as it turns out, they're not on the run.
"And, oh yeah, they can fight us here even if we fight them there.
"And oh, one more thing, after spending hundreds of billions and losing all those lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, we're more vulnerable to terrorists than ever.
"And, um, you know that Dead-or-Alive stuff? We may be the ones who end up dead.
"Squirming White House officials had to confront the fact yesterday that everything President Bush has been spouting the last six years about Al Qaeda being on the run, disrupted and weakened was just guff."
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....And The Truth Shall Set Us Free