WASHINGTON — The White House refused Wednesday to release in full a previously secret intelligence assessment that depicts a growing terrorist threat and has fueled the election-season fight over the Iraq war.
Press secretary Tony Snow said releasing the full report, portions of which President Bush declassified on Tuesday, would jeopardize the lives of agents who gathered the information.
It would also risk the nation's ability to work with foreign governments and to keep secret its U.S. intelligence-gathering methods, Snow said, and "compromise the independence of people doing intelligence analysis."
"If they think their work is constantly going to be released to the public they are going to pull their punches," Snow said.
Iraq as a bulwark against terrorists
In the bleak National Intelligence Estimate, the government's top analysts concluded Iraq has become a "cause celebre" for jihadists, who are growing in number and geographic reach. If the trend continues, the analysts found, the risks to the U.S. interests at home and abroad will grow.
Snow said the report confirms the importance of the war in Iraq as a bulwark against terrorists. "Iraq has become, for them, the battleground," he said. "If they lose, they lose their bragging rights. They lose their ability to recruit."
Fuel for the fire
The document has given both political parties new ammunition leading up to November's midterm elections.
For Republicans, the report provides more evidence that Iraq is central to the war on terrorism and can't be abandoned without giving jihadists a crucial victory.
For Democrats, the report furthers their argument that the 2003 Iraq invasion has inflamed anti-U.S. sentiments in the Muslim world and left the U.S. less safe. Democrats continued their push Wednesday for release of the rest of the report.
"The American people deserve the full story, not those parts of it that the Bush administration selects," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, warned, however, that releasing more of the intelligence assessment could aid terrorists. "We are very cautious and very restrained about the kind of information we want to give al-Qaida," Hoekstra said.
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Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in Tirana, Albania for a meeting of defense ministers, said Bush had declassified the report's key judgments, after parts of it were leaked to the news media, so that "the American people and the world will be able to see the truth and precisely what that document says."
Jihadist movement spreading
The NIE report, compiled by leading analysts across 16 U.S. spy agencies, says the "global jihadist movement -- which includes al-Qaida, affiliated and independent terrorist groups, and emerging networks and cells -- is spreading and adapting to counterterrorism efforts."
A separate high-level assessment focused solely on Iraq may be coming soon. At least two House Democrats -- Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Jane Harman of California -- have questioned whether that report has been stamped "draft" and shelved until after the Nov. 7 elections.
An intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the process, said National Intelligence Director John Negroponte told lawmakers in writing only one month ago that he ordered a new Iraq estimate to be assembled. The estimate on terrorism released Tuesday took about a year to produce.
The broad assessment on global terror trends, completed in April, escalated an election-year battle over which party is the best steward of national security.
At a news conference Tuesday, Bush said critics who believe the Iraq war has worsened terrorism are naive and mistaken, noting that al-Qaida and other groups have found inspiration to attack for more than a decade. "My judgment is, if we weren't in Iraq, they'd find some other excuse, because they have ambitions," the president said.
But Sen. Joe Biden, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday that Bush has allowed Iraq to fester as a training ground for terrorists, and U.S. voters are worried about it.
"On Election Day, that morning, if there's still the carnage in the streets of Iraq, then it will be clear that they have concluded that this administration's policy has failed and there will be a political price for it," Biden, D-Del., predicted on CBS' "The Early Show."
Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the intelligence committee's top Democrat, said the decision to invade Iraq shifted focus away from U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
"There is no question that many of our policies have inflamed our enemies' hatred toward the U.S. and allowed violence to flourish," he said. "But it is the mistakes we made in Iraq -- the lack of planning, the mismanagement and the complete incompetence of our leadership -- that has done the most damage to our security."
Few positive notes
In the declassified excerpts on terrorism, the intelligence community found:
-- The increased role of Iraqis in managing the operations of al-Qaida in Iraq might lead the terror group's veteran foreign fighters to refocus their efforts outside that country.
-- While Iran and Syria are the most active state sponsors of terror, many other countries will be unable to prevent their resources from being exploited by terrorists.
-- The underlying factors fueling the spread of the extremist Muslim movement outweigh its vulnerabilities. These factors are entrenched grievances and a slow pace of reform in home countries, rising anti-U.S. sentiment and the Iraq war.
-- Groups "of all stripes" will increasingly use the Internet to communicate, train, recruit and obtain support.
The report’s few positive notes were couched in conditional terms, depending on successful completion of difficult tasks ahead for the U.S. and its allies. In one example, analysts concluded that more responsive political systems in Muslim nations could erode support for jihadist extremists.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a U.S. ally in Washington for a Wednesday meeting with Bush, found himself drawn into the political dispute. He was asked in a CNN interview about an assertion in his new book that he opposed the invasion of Iraq because he feared that it would only encourage extremists. “It has made the world a more dangerous place,” he said.
White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend took issue with one of the report’s most damning conclusions, that the number of jihadists has increased.
“I don’t think there’s any question that there’s an increase in rhetoric,” she said. But “I think it’s difficult to count the number of true jihadists that are willing to commit murder or kill themselves.”
U.S. must exploit weaknesses
The intelligence assessment also lays out weaknesses of the movement that analysts say must be exploited if its spread is to be slowed. For instance, they note that extremists want to see the establishment of strict Islamic governments in the Arab world, a development that would be unpopular with most Muslims.
The report also argues that the loss of key al-Qaida leaders — Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — in “rapid succession” would probably cause the group to fracture. Al-Zarqawi was killed in June, but the top two al-Qaida leaders have remained elusive for years.
National intelligence estimates are compilations of the best thinking of U.S. intelligence agencies, meant to provide the broadest guidance to government policymakers.
But they can be wrong. A 2002 assessment, for example, concluded that Iraq had continued its development of weapons of mass destruction, held arsenals of chemical and biological weapons and “probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade.” None of those assertions turned out to be true.
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