By Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Democratic lawmakers yesterday seized on elements of a new classified intelligence assessment as validation of their long-standing position that the Iraq war has been a distraction from the broader war against terrorists, seeing the new study as an opportunity to undermine President Bush's determined offensive to turn terrorism to political advantage in the midterm elections.
A classified National Intelligence Estimate, completed in April but disclosed in news reports over the weekend, offers the U.S. intelligence community's first formal evaluation of global trends in terrorism since the April 2003 invasion of Iraq. U.S. officials said the report concludes that the Iraq war has fueled the growth of Islamic extremism and terror groups, but White House officials responded that the reports reflected a selective and distorted interpretation of the study.
Democratic lawmakers said the NIE finding undermines Bush's frequent claim that the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government has made the world more secure and confirms the need for a major change in strategy in Iraq. The findings were featured prominently at a hearing Senate Democrats held yesterday to review the conduct of the war and were cited by several retired generals offering harsh critiques of the administration's preparation for the Iraq war.
"The report underscores that the longer Bush and his enablers . . . keep us in Iraq, the more we undermine our own security," said Democrat Paul Hodes, who is seeking to oust incumbent Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.).
After weeks in which White House officials believed they had partly succeeded in reframing the elections around terrorism, rather than Iraq, the new report threatened to reverse those gains. Democrats also sought to benefit from a new interview Bush gave to CNN, in which the president said, "When the final history is written on Iraq, it will look just like a comma, because there is . . . a strong will for democracy." They said it was a sign that he was lightly dismissing the war in Iraq.
Administration officials rejected calls from Democrats -- and some Republicans -- to release an unclassified version of the report, and one official said the NIE discussed how the Iraq war has been used as a propaganda tool by terror groups.
Frances Fragos Townsend, the top White House adviser on terrorism, said one paragraph in nine pages of "key judgments" from the intelligence community discusses how "the war in Iraq is being used by extremists to spread the global extremist message," but added, "It does not say it has made us less safe." The "one thing that would make us less safe" is an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, she added.
Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) noted that there have been no attacks on the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, and he described the new reports as "selective leaks put out within five or six weeks of the election designed to help the Democrats get control of the Congress."
According to officials familiar with the classified report interviewed by The Washington Post over the weekend, the study found that rather than contributing to eventual victory in the international counterterrorism struggle, the war in Iraq has worsened the U.S. position. Many experts on terrorism regard that finding as unexceptional -- indeed the CIA predicted it before the Iraq invasion -- but it runs counter to the argument presented by the president and his senior advisers.
Bush has repeatedly claimed that he attacked Iraq to defeat terrorists, accused Hussein of sponsoring terrorists and, as he put it in a speech last month to the American Legion, considers the world "better off" with "the tyrant gone from power" in Baghdad. He has described Iraq as the "central front" in the war against terrorists, noting frequently how Osama bin Laden has urged his followers to go to Iraq to fight the Americans.
In a recent round of speeches on terrorism tied to the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush did not directly address the issue of whether the war in Iraq has spawned a surge in Islamic radicalism and terrorism.
White House press secretary Tony Snow declined to say yesterday whether the president agrees with the conclusion that Iraq has made terrorism worse. "I am not going to parse that particular statement," he said. "If we leave before we have a stable democracy, it will certainly embolden terrorist organizations."
One prominent GOP pollster said the new disclosures could put at risk any gains the White House may have made in recent weeks tying the war in Iraq to a broader war on terrorism. "Anything that undermines the connection between the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq is not helpful to us," said pollster Tony Fabrizio. "If nothing else, it puts the president on the defensive."
At yesterday's Democratic hearing, several retired generals said the NIE buttressed their complaints that the administration had prepared inadequately for the Iraq invasion and its aftermath.
"If we had seriously laid out and considered the full range of requirements for the war in Iraq, we would likely have taken a different course of action that would have maintained a clear focus on our main effort in Afghanistan, not fueled Islamic fundamentalism across the globe," said retired Maj. Gen John Batiste, former commander of the Army's 1st Infantry Division.
Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.V.) called for the report to be declassified, saying its contents would not expose intelligence sources or intelligence-gathering methods. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) penned a letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), demanding hearings on the estimate's conclusions.
Sen Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee, joined in the call to declassify the new NIE. He said the administration should do so, so "the American people can see the material for themselves and come to their own conclusions," adding: "There is a false impression that the NIE focuses solely on Iraq and terrorism. That is not true. This NIE examines global terrorism in its totality."
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.