By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 18, 2007; A05
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.
Confronted with a political brush fire, the president and his aides retreated to familiar ground, highlighting the parts of the report that they saw as supportive of their policies, particularly the need to confront Islamic radicals on the ground in Iraq.
In talking with reporters in the Oval Office yesterday, Bush concentrated on a single paragraph in the assessment that placed the enemy in Iraq in a larger context of international terrorism. The estimate said bin Laden's organization will "probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland."
Although only a portion of the instability in Iraq is attributed to al-Qaeda and the group had no substantial power base there before the U.S. invasion, Bush again cast the war as a battle against its members, whom his aides have described as key provocateurs there.
"These people have sworn allegiance to the very same man who ordered the attack on September the 11th, 2001: Osama bin Laden," the president said. "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."
Bush's top advisers also pushed back at the proposition from many Democrats that the White House allowed the pursuit of al-Qaeda to be diverted by going after Saddam Hussein. Briefing reporters yesterday, Frances Fragos Townsend, Bush's homeland security adviser, took issue with the suggestion that the president had ignored warnings from the intelligence community that attacking Iraq would stimulate al-Qaeda's drive for recruits and influence.
"You're assuming it's a zero-sum game, which is what I don't understand," Townsend said. "The fact is, we were harassing them in Afghanistan, we're harassing them in Iraq, we're harassing them in other ways, non-militarily, around the world. And the answer is, every time you poke the hornet's nest, they are bound to come back and push back on you. That doesn't suggest to me that we shouldn't be doing it."
But many Democrats questioned the administration's explanations, seizing on the key judgments of the new intelligence estimate as yet another reason to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq and changing the administration's mission of the past four years.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said the current situation in Iraq "has helped to energize" al-Qaeda. "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," he said in a statement.
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.
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.
Paul R. Pillar, a former CIA analyst who has been involved in previous intelligence estimates, said that the administration has correctly identified the danger posed by al-Qaeda in Iraq and that there are indeed links between the Iraq group and the larger international terrorist network. But he said the White House is drawing the wrong conclusion, and argued instead that it is the U.S. presence in Iraq that is fueling the terrorists' cause.
"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," Pillar said.
Referring to al-Qaeda in Iraq, Clinton administration official Daniel S. Benjamin, who has written books and articles on international terrorism, said: "These are bad guys. These are jihadists." He added: "That doesn't mean we [should] stay in Iraq the way we have been, because we are not making the situation any better. We're creating terrorists in Iraq, we are creating terrorists outside of Iraq who are inspired by what's going on in Iraq. . . . The longer we stay, the more terrorists we create."