After slamming what he characterized as the politically motivated leak of portions of a classified intelligence report over the weekend, President Bush reversed course on Tuesday and declassified four pages of the 30-plus-page National Intelligence Estimate.
The controversial report, completed in April, found that Muslim jihadists were "increasing in both number and geographic dispersion" and that even though U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts had seriously damaged al Qaeda leadership and disrupted its plans, the Osama bin Laden-led group still poses "the greatest threat to the homeland and U.S. interests abroad" (see "White House, Rice Downplay Report That Iraq War Has Made Terrorism Worse").
In addition to findings that the global jihadist movement is spreading and adapting to counterterrorism efforts, the most widely reported portion of the document reports that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has become a "cause célèbre" for jihadists, helping to breed resentment of the U.S. involvement in the country and "cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement."
After numerous warnings from administration sources that the leaked portions did not tell the whole story of the classified document — based on the findings of the government's 16 intelligence agencies — the four released pages appeared to support the accounts that appeared in The New York Times over the weekend.
The report specifically mentioned the jihad in Iraq as one of four underlying factors that are fueling the spread of the jihadist movement across the globe. The other factors are: fear of Western domination; the slow pace of economic, social and political reform in Muslim nations and pervasive anti-American sentiment among most Muslims.
The White House has resisted releasing the entire document, with spokesperson Tony Snow saying Wednesday (September 27) that to do so would endanger the lives of the agents who compiled the information and possibly expose the country's secret intelligence-gathering methods.
The release of the excerpts from the classified document was unusual and was initially resisted by the administration, but pressure from the conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and Republican Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, spurred the White House to change course, according to the Times. At a news conference on Tuesday, Bush suggested the declassification was meant to counter what he characterized as a politically motivated leak timed to "create confusion in the minds of the American people" in the lead up to the upcoming midterm congressional elections.
"Here we are, coming down the stretch in an election campaign, and it's on the front page of your newspapers,'' Bush said at a news conference with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on Tuesday. "Isn't that interesting? Somebody has taken it upon themselves to leak classified information for political purposes. ... You know, to suggest that if we weren't in Iraq we would see a rosier scenario, with fewer extremists joining the radical movement, requires us to ignore 20 years of experience," Bush continued. "My judgment is: The only way to protect this country is to stay on the offense."
The National Intelligence Estimate predicted that over the next five years the factors feeding the global jihad were likely to be more powerful than those that could slow it down, a finding that caused Democrats to cite it as more proof that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, the Times reported.
"The war in Iraq has made us less safe," said Senator John D. Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Rockefeller said the judgments in the intelligence estimate "make it clear that the intelligence community — all 16 agencies — believe the war in Iraq has fueled terrorism." Officials who have read the entire, still classified, document told the Times that it contains a more detailed analysis of the impact of the Iraq war on the global jihad movement. Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that the four pages released by the White House were mostly consistent with the classified portion of the report.
The estimate pointed to the role of slain al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — who was killed by U.S. forces in June (see "Iraq's Most Wanted Terrorist, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Killed In Air Strike") — in drafting new recruits for the jihad cause in Iraq. It predicted that "should al-Zarqawi continue to evade capture and scale back attacks against Muslims, we assess he could broaden his popular appeal and present a global threat." But to truly be successful in beating back the spread of radical ideology, according to the estimate, the U.S. government "must go well beyond operations to capture or kill terrorist leaders."
While much of the assessment painted a dim picture of the war against a worldwide terror movement, the estimate also pointed out some potential vulnerabilities in the jihadist's movement, which, if exploited, could slow its spread. Among them: the limited appeal of an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic law to the majority of Muslims, condemnations of violence and extremist religious interpretations by respected Muslim clerics and criticism of violent tactics employed mostly against fellow Muslims.
The estimate also speculated that the loss of leaders such as Osama bin Laden and al-Zarqawi in a short time frame could lead to the splintering of terror groups into smaller units, which could highlight ongoing tensions among leaders.