For many months, President Bush has sought to assure Americans that the spread of democracy in the Middle East is the key to turning the tide in the war on terror, and that Americans are safer at home than they were five years ago.
But his administration rushed over the weekend to play down the findings of a classified report from its own intelligence services that said the war in and occupation of Iraq has actually helped to produce a new generation of Islamic radicals.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sat down with MTV News on Monday (September 25) and said her colleagues aren't responsible for inciting terrorism — but they are responsible for counteracting it.
"These are people who've had lots of different reasons for fighting us," she said. "The terrorists are always going to have ways to recruit people to their cause. Our job is to recruit people to the cause of peace and prosperity.
"And our job is to defeat those who are intent on killing innocent people in the perversion of the name of a great religion."
The findings also led to an intense volley of accusations and finger-pointing between Democrats and Republicans over which side is best suited to lead the war on terror.
The report, called the National Intelligence Estimate, concludes that the overall terrorist threat has actually grown since the September 11, 2001, attacks and that the Iraq war has had a more direct role in fueling radicalism than the White House has stated in recent documents, according to The New York Times. The revelation of the findings in the intelligence estimate comes on the heels of last week's report from the House Intelligence Committee, which painted an even more dire picture of the terror threat, speculating that "al Qaeda leaders wait patiently for the right opportunity to attack."
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Watch Condoleezza talk with MTV News about the report that says we're not.
Completed in April, the intelligence estimate is the first formal overview of the state of global terrorism by United States intelligence agencies since the Iraq war began. (According to the Times, analysts began working on the estimate in 2004, but it was not finalized until this year due to some government officials being unhappy with the structure and focus of earlier versions of the document, officials involved in the discussion said.)
Titled "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States," the report compiles the views of the government's 16 different spy services. It opens with the blunt finding that "the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse," according to one American intelligence official -- one of more than a dozen who spoke to the paper about the general conclusions of the document on the condition of anonymity.
Republican Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, reacted to the document by using language similar to that in recent speeches by Bush. "Either we are going to be fighting this battle, this war overseas, or it's going to be right here in this country," the Times reported.
The report avoided specific judgments about the likelihood that terrorists would strike within the U.S. again, but early drafts reportedly said actions taken by the U.S. government might have inflamed the jihad movement, such as the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal. Though it was approved by National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, the White House was not involved in drafting or reviewing the document.
According to the estimate, the radical Islamic movement has grown from a core of al Qaeda operatives and affiliated groups to include a new class of "self-generating" cells inspired by al Qaeda's leadership but without any direct connection to Osama bin Laden or his top lieutenants, the Times reported.
Details on the findings were scarce, but reaction from both Democrats and Republicans was swift and intense.
The White House typically does not comment on classified intelligence matters, but concern that reports about the assessment could undercut one of the administration's most fundamental arguments for continued U.S. presence in Iraq -- breaking the back of the global jihadist movement -- presumably led to a statement rebutting points of the Times' story over the weekend.
The statement stressed that Bush has frequently talked about the decentralization of terrorist groups around the world, and it reiterated his frequent cautions that the terrorist threat remains strong. It noted that Osama bin Laden had declared the war in Iraq to be the most "serious issue today for the whole world," and also said that the story in the Times was not representative of the entire document.
Negroponte said in a statement released on Sunday that conclusions about the Iraq war are only a portion of the overall intelligence assessment. He added that viewing the report's conclusions "through the narrow prism of a fraction of judgments distorts the broad framework they create." He said the estimate "highlights the importance of the outcome in Iraq on the future of global jihadism," speculating that if Iraq develops a stable political and security environment, "the jihadists will be perceived to have failed, and fewer jihadists will leave Iraq determined to carry on the fight elsewhere."
In an intense run-up to a midterm election that has the potential to shift some of the power in Congress to Democrats from Republicans, Democrats were eager to seize on the findings to counter Bush's recent claims that Americans are safer now than five years ago.
Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy said in a statement that the report "should put the final nail in the coffin for President Bush's phony argument about the Iraq war." House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi had even stronger words, saying, "President Bush should read the intelligence carefully before giving another misleading speech about progress in the war on terrorism."
While Republicans didn't dispute the assessment's findings, some tried to use it to lend support to the war in Iraq. "I think it's obvious that the difficulties we've experienced in Iraq have certainly emboldened" terrorist groups, Republican Senator John McCain said on "Face the Nation." "But I would also argue that these people didn't need any motivation to attack us on September 11."