Bush's Osama Problem

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, July 18, 2007; 2:00 PM

Nearly six years after President Bush pledged to capture him "dead or alive," Osama bin Laden is not only still at large, but he and his al-Qaeda organization have apparently benefited greatly from Bush's decision to invade Iraq.

That's not just me saying so. It's the inevitable conclusion from the declassified summary of a White House intelligence report released to great fanfare yesterday.

It turns out that bin Laden and his al-Qaeda leadership are safely ensconced in Pakistan. They're still trying to attack us. And the U.S. occupation of Iraq has provided them with a potent rallying cry, recruiting tool and training ground they would not have had otherwise.

The White House has time and again used the specter of al-Qaeda to cow Capitol Hill into doing its bidding. Similarly, Bush and his aides have lately gone to great lengths to conflate the multifaceted insurgency in Iraq with al-Qaeda. After all, when it's Bush vs. al-Qaeda, how many Americans will side with al-Qaeda?

The report's release shot al-Qaeda back into the headlines. But this time, the al-Qaeda stories have a potentially devastating twist for the administration: As it turns out, Bush's policies may have helped bin Laden more than they've hurt him.

The Analysis

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "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."

Abramowitz also notes that "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."

But, he writes: "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."

Abramowitz quotes former CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar as saying: "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."

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "Nearly six years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives expended in the name of the war on terror pose a single, insistent question: Are we safer?

"On Tuesday, in a dark and strikingly candid two pages, the nation's intelligence agencies offered an implicit answer, and it was not encouraging. In many respects, the National Intelligence Estimate suggests, the threat of terrorist violence against the United States is growing worse, fueled by the Iraq war and spreading Islamic extremism."

Shane writes that "the stark declassified summary contrasted sharply with the more positive emphasis of President Bush and his top aides for years: that two-thirds of Al Qaeda's leadership had been killed or captured; that the Iraq invasion would reduce the terrorist menace; and that the United States had its enemies 'on the run,' as Mr. Bush has frequently put it. . . .

"The headline on the intelligence estimate, said Daniel L. Byman, a former intelligence officer and the director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, might just as well have been the same as on the now famous presidential brief of Aug. 6, 2001: 'Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.'"

Mark Mazzetti and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "At the White House, [Frances Townsend, Bush's homeland security adviser,] found herself in the uncomfortable position of explaining why American military action was focused in Iraq when the report concluded that main threat of terror attacks that could be carried out in the United States emanated from the tribal areas of Pakistan."

About the Timing

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The release of limited findings from the latest consensus of the nation's intelligence community, arriving at a critical moment in President Bush's battle with the Democratic-led Congress over an unpopular war in Iraq, follows a pattern of White House releases of select intelligence findings at critical junctures in the war debate.

"The White House maintained that nothing in the assessment, titled 'The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland,' points to an imminent attack. But the sum of it warns of a 'persistent and evolving threat over the next three years' posed especially by Al Qaeda, 'driven by their undiminished intent to attack the homeland.' . . .

"Democrats said the document showed mostly that the administration has failed to weaken Al Qaeda. And other critics suggested that stirring a renewed fear of terrorism served the White House's political purposes in the midst of the heated Iraq debate."

Rallying the GOP?

John Bresnahan writes for Politico: "The Republican establishment is rallying to the defense of President Bush and his controversial war strategy, with some GOP members of Congress cherry-picking intelligence about a resurgent Al Qaeda to buy at least two more months for Bush's Iraq strategy.

"Republican leaders on Tuesday pounced on a newly released National Intelligence Estimate to argue that the increasingly powerful and ominous Al Qaeda presence justifies current troop levels in Iraq at least until September."

... Or the Democrats?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement: "The unclassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate released today leads me to two conclusions: one, the Bush Administration's national security strategy has failed in its most basic responsibility -- to capture or kill Usama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, the men who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, and eliminate Al Qaeda as a threat to the homeland; and two, there is even greater urgency to the need to change course in Iraq. . . .

"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."

Getting Worse

Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "Intelligence officials attributed the al-Qaeda gains primarily to its establishment of a safe haven in ungoverned areas of northwestern Pakistan. Its affiliation with the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, the report said, has helped it to 'energize' extremists elsewhere and has aided Osama bin Laden's recruitment and funding."

That's a dramatic contrast from the NIE on global terrorism written in April 2006, which "described a downward trend in al-Qaeda's capabilities since bin Laden and the rest of the group's surviving leadership were driven from their sanctuaries in Afghanistan by U.S. military forces in December 2001. That report, like the one issued yesterday, said that the Iraq war was a primary recruitment vehicle for al-Qaeda. But the earlier report concluded that al-Qaeda's operations had been disrupted and its leadership was 'seriously damaged.'"

Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe: "Some national-security specialists were surprised by the frank assessments.

"For the last few years intelligence officials have suggested much of Al Qaeda's central leadership has been neutralized, and that the primary national security threat came from splinter groups bin Laden inspired but doesn't command. Yesterday's assessment summary concludes that the same organization that meticulously planned and executed the September 11th attacks is alive and well."

About Al Qaeda in Iraq

Greg Miller and Josh Meyer write in the Los Angeles Times that "senior U.S. intelligence officials contradicted . . . remarks by Bush, including his statements equating those who carry out bombings in Iraq to the Sept. 11 hijackers.

"The report's principal author, Edward Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats, said during a briefing with reporters that Al Qaeda in Iraq did not exist before the U.S. invasion. He also said that the group's 'overwhelming focus' remained confined to the conflict in Iraq."

Richard Willing quotes Sen. Joseph Biden in USA Today: "'Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a Bush-fulfilling prophecy (that) has helped al-Qaeda energize extremists around the world,' Biden said. That's why, he said, the United States must refocus on al-Qaeda and get U.S. troops out of Iraq."

The White House Spin

At a photo op yesterday, Bush spoke briefly on the subject: "Al Qaeda is strong today, but they're not nearly as strong as they were prior to September the 11th, 2001, and the reason why is, is because we've been working with the world to keep the pressure on, to stay on the offense, to bring them to justice so they won't hurt us again; to defeat them where we find them.

"And now we find them in Iraq. These killers in Iraq, people who will kill innocent life to stop the advent of democracy, people who are trying to get on our TV screens on a daily basis to drive us have got ambitions and plans. These people have sworn allegiance to the very same man who ordered the attack on September the 11th, 2001, Osama bin Laden. 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."

Frances Townsend, Bush's homeland security adviser, held a press conference yesterday about the report; here is the transcript.

Her opening remarks were full of praise for the president: "Almost six years after September 11th, we have not been attacked, and I am often asked why." Townsend's answer: "Because the President has made clear that job number one is to protect the American people from an attack, and his strategy for doing this has been clear and unambiguous."

And here is the transcript of Tony Snow's briefing from yesterday.

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "It had to happen. President Bush's bungling of the war in Iraq has been the talk of the summer. On Capitol Hill, some of the more reliable Republicans are writing proposals to force Mr. Bush to change course. A showdown vote is looming in the Senate.

"Enter, stage right, the fear of terrorism. . . .

"The message, as always: Be very afraid. And don't question the president."

But the Times argues: "If the report is given an honest reading, it is a powerful rebuke to Mr. Bush's approach to the war on terror. It vindicates those who say that the Iraq war is a distraction from the real fight against terrorism -- a fight that is not going at all well."

Fred Kaplan writes for Slate: "One major reason for al-Qaida's resurgence, according to the report, is its 'association with' al-Qaida in Iraq. (Note, by the way, that these two organizations are said to be 'associated' or 'affiliated' with each other; contrary to what Bush has said in recent speeches, they are not the same entity.) This affiliation 'helps al-Qaida to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.' . . .

"Many times, President Bush has said that we're fighting the terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to fight them here. It is an absurd argument in many ways. But the NIE reveals that the opposite is the case -- that because we're fighting them in Iraq, we are more likely to face them here."

Josh Marshall blogs: "The simple fact is that the full picture is now clear. The White House was repeatedly warned in advance that attacking Iraq would strengthen al Qaeda. We did and it did. That's where we are now. The White House has no excuse and no answer."

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Oh, as it turns out, they're not on the run.

"And, oh yeah, they can fight us here even if we fight them there.

"And oh, one more thing, after spending hundreds of billions and losing all those lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, we're more vulnerable to terrorists than ever.

"And, um, you know that Dead-or-Alive stuff? We may be the ones who end up dead.

"Squirming White House officials had to confront the fact yesterday that everything President Bush has been spouting the last six years about Al Qaeda being on the run, disrupted and weakened was just guff."

Politicization Watch

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "The White House political affairs office directed the nation's chief antidrug official and his deputies to appear at about 20 political events with vulnerable Republican members of Congress before the 2006 elections, a leading House Democrat charged Tuesday.

"The lawmaker, Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, said the episode was further evidence of what Democrats have described as White House efforts at improperly politicizing federal agencies. Mr. Waxman said the pre-election appearances, by officials of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which is obliged by law to be nonpolitical, were often accompanied by announcements of federal grants.

"The congressman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said administration documents obtained by the committee suggested that Sara M. Taylor, then the White House political affairs director, and Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, had helped direct the campaign-season travel plans of officials from the drug office, including its director, John P. Walters."

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "In a letter to Taylor, Waxman also pointed to an e-mail by an official in the drug policy office describing [Rove] as being pleased that the office, along with the Commerce, Transportation and Agriculture departments, went 'above and beyond' the call of duty in arranging appearances by Cabinet members at campaign events.

"'This recognition is not something we hear every day and we should feel confident that our hard work is noticed,' said the e-mail, written by Douglas Simon, the drug policy office's White House liaison. 'The director and the deputies deserve the most recognition because they actually had to give up time with their families for the god awful places we sent them.'"

Cheney's Secrets Exposed!

Remember Vice President Cheney's secret energy task force, and all its secret meetings?

Michael Abramowitz and Steven Mufson write in The Washington Post: "A confidential list prepared by the Bush administration shows that Cheney and his aides .. held at least 40 meetings with interest groups, most of them from energy-producing industries. . . .

"In all, about 300 groups and individuals met with staff members of the energy task force, including a handful who saw Cheney himself, according to the list, which was compiled in the summer of 2001. For six years, those names have been a closely guarded secret, thanks to a fierce legal battle waged by the White House. . . .

"One of the first visitors, on Feb. 14, was James J. Rouse, then vice president of Exxon Mobil and a major donor to the Bush inauguration; a week later, longtime Bush supporter Kenneth L. Lay, then head of Enron Corp., came by for the first of two meetings. On March 5, some of the country's biggest electric utilities, including Duke Energy and Constellation Energy Group, had an audience with the task force staff. . . .

"The list of participants' names and when they met with administration officials provides a clearer picture of the task force's priorities and bolsters previous reports that the review leaned heavily on oil and gas companies and on trade groups -- many of them big contributors to the Bush campaign and the Republican Party. But while it clears up much of the lingering uncertainty about who was granted access to present energy policy views to Cheney's staff, it does not entirely explain why the Bush administration fought so hard to keep it and other as-yet-unreleased internal memos secret."

Fielding Watch

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Fred F. Fielding took over as White House counsel in January, prompting the widespread expectation that he would help usher a new pragmatism into the West Wing, one that could defuse the inevitable tension between the White House and the newly empowered Democrats in Congress. . . .

"But, so far, he hasn't."

U.S. Attorney Watch

Jesse J. Holland writes for the Associated Press: "Former White House aide Harriet Miers will continue to refuse to appear before a House committee, her lawyer said Tuesday despite Democrats' threats to hold her in contempt. . . .

"The House Judiciary Committee had given Miers, President Bush's former legal counsel who defied a subpoena to appear before the committee, until Tuesday to change her mind about testifying. Lawmakers have been investigating whether the White House was involved in the dismissals of eight federal prosecutors.

"'Her failure to comply with our subpoena is a serious affront to this committee and our constitutional system of checks and balances,' House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said. 'We are carefully planning our next steps.'"

Wiretapping Watch

James Risen writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration has asked for more time to respond to subpoenas from the Senate Judiciary Committee related to the National Security Agency's program of wiretapping without warrants, and the panel has agreed, said a committee spokeswoman, Tracy Schmaler. Today was to have been the deadline for the administration to respond to the subpoenas issued by the Senate committee late last month to the White House, the National Security Council, Vice President Cheney's office and the Justice Department."

Thomas Ferraro writes for Reuters: "Attorneys for the White House and Cheney's office wrote Leahy on Tuesday and said the administration needed more time to respond.

"'We have been working diligently to assess your requests,' wrote White House counsel Fred Fielding. 'However, it has become clear that we will not be able to come close to completing our review process by the July 18 return date.'"

As I wrote in my June 28 column, asserting a vaguely plausible executive privilege claim in rejecting these subpoenas would be much harder even than asserting privilege related to last year's firings of U.S. attorneys.

Middle East Watch

Steven Erlanger writes in the New York Times about the problems associated with Bush's attempt to pitch the battle between Palestinian political groups Fatah and Hamas as one between good and evil.

"By conflating Hamas with jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Mr. Bush presented a picture that most Palestinians do not recognize. Their internal divisions -- even with Hamas having routed Fatah in Gaza last month and Fatah running the West Bank -- are much more complex that the one posited by Mr. Bush.

"Palestinians elected Hamas in January 2006 to rule them, after all, and even many Palestinians who voted for Fatah say the United States-led boycott of Hamas has meant it has never been given a chance to govern.

"They also know that Fatah has hardly been spotless, which is why they voted against it, and that Fatah has done very little to reform itself since.

"Nor is it clear that Mr. Bush's vision is shared by other American allies or other members of the so-called quartet -- Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- trying to encourage Middle East peace."

Richard Boudreaux writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush's declared intention to refocus on the Middle East by sponsoring a peace conference this fall won cautious endorsement Tuesday from Israeli, Palestinian and other regional leaders who will be invited. But many in the region voiced skepticism about what it could achieve. . . .

"[O]fficials and analysts immersed in the 6-decade-old conflict said the initiative faces many obstacles: an untenable split among the Palestinians, weak leadership in the Israeli and Palestinian camps, widely differing expectations for the conference, and a sense that Bush is acting too late."

Meanwhile, Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "The White House said Tuesday the international meeting on the Middle East proposed by President Bush should not be viewed as 'a big peace conference.' . . .

"After many years of disappointments and setbacks in the search for peace in the Middle East, the administration appears intent on preventing expectations from rising too high."

See yesterday's column, Bush's Middle Eastern Folly.

Of Dead Elephants and Sinking Ships

Ronald Brownstein writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column: "Amid all the frenetic early maneuvering in the 2008 GOP presidential race, Republicans may be missing the elephant in the room: namely that the head of the herd is bleeding to death on the carpet.

"That would be President Bush, whose approval rating scraped new lows last week. Bush won't be on the ballot in 2008, of course, but throughout American history, outgoing presidents have cast a long shadow over the campaign to succeed them. And when a departing president has been as unpopular as Bush is now, his party has usually lost the White House in the next election. . . .

"One senior GOP strategist says Bush could most help the party by redirecting the American mission in Iraq away from front-line combat operations toward training and counter-terrorism. But even if Bush dropped his opposition to that idea, such a change might be too little, too late to rebuild his public standing. Whatever Bush does in Iraq, Republicans next year will probably need to paddle away from him much more energetically than they have so far. It also means that no matter how hard they swim, they could still be swamped if Bush can't stabilize his sinking ship."

The Red Lawn

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post that "old-timers covering the White House often compare its vaunted secrecy to that of the Kremlin in Soviet days, when reporters would try to figure out who was in or who was gulag-bound by noting how far each official stood from the top guy on the podium at Moscow's annual May Day parade.

"So President Bush's failure to acknowledge the presence of his attorney general at Sunday's White House Tee Ball game had reporters buzzing."

Different Universe Watch

Julie Mason blogs for the Houston Chronicle about Bush's "oddly remote, parallel existence." She writes that "sometimes -- like this week -- it seems like Bush is governing some other place -- where a round table on health care, which will include no new proposals, no new rhetoric and a few warm moments with some carefully chosen supporters -- is a worthwhile use of his time and our attention."

Rebuttal Watch

On Sunday, The Washington Post published a William Kristol opinion piece titled: "Why Bush Will Be a Winner." Now David Corn responds with a piece titled: "Why Bush Is a Loser."

Corn reviews Kristol's miserable record as a prognosticator and concludes that his "Bush boosterism -- an act of self-justification -- would be amusing were it not for all the damage he has helped Bush to cause."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart notes the abysmal grades on the Iraqi benchmarks announced last week, and points out: "That's the report card the Bush administration themselves submitted. Why didn't they cherry pick the results?

"They did."

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius on the NIE.

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