WASHINGTON -- A new intelligence report released yesterday links the conflict in Iraq to a possible terror attack on the U.S., concluding that al-Qaida terrorists have "regenerated" key elements of their ability to launch operations inside this country and will probably seek to do so by tapping connections with the group al-Qaida in Iraq.
The report, issued in the midst of a heated national debate over the U.S. military presence in Iraq, prompted harsh criticism from war opponents, who accused the Bush administration of trying to divert attention from rising public frustration over the war.
In interviews, former intelligence analysts commended the straightforward nature of the report, the first National Intelligence Estimate to address the terrorist threat to the United States since 1987. A National Intelligence Estimate is a comprehensive evaluation by all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.
These intelligence specialists said the report showed a significant shift in the al-Qaida threat -- and showed that leadership under Osama bin Laden is stronger than previously thought.
"It says America is in big trouble, and we better get ready to get attacked again," said Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA's now-defunct unit on al-Qaida.
But some current and former intelligence officials also said it was impossible to overlook the political ramifications of a report being released on the eve of a Senate vote on a proposal to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq.
The report, titled "Al Qaida Better Positioned to Strike the West," further intensified the clash between President Bush and Democrats and some weary Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Democrats immediately seized on its release to argue that the Bush administration's Iraq policy has distracted the country from the threat posed by the terrorist group responsible for the September 2001 attacks.
"Al-Qaida has gotten stronger as a result of the policies of this administration," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is sponsoring a measure to set a deadline for troop withdrawal.
Matter of timing
The report had been in the works since October and was completed last month, but the administration's decision to make portions of it public yesterday drew criticism from some Democrats, and one senior intelligence official, who said the White House was trying to shift attention from public discontent with the Iraq war.
"It seems pretty clear to me they're trying to justify the need to keep high levels of troops in Iraq," said one senior intelligence official, on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the news media. "But it begs the question of: Who created the [al-Qaida] problem there in Iraq?"
Several Democrats took pains to say that al-Qaida arrived in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
"That should finally disprove the Bush aphorism that we're fighting them there to prevent us from fighting them here," said Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Committee's subcommittee on intelligence.
At the White House, President Bush and his top deputies offered an aggressive defense of administration policies and said the report provided new reasons to press ahead in Iraq.
"It's in the interest of the United States to not only defeat them overseas so we don't have to face them here, but also to spread an ideology that will defeat their ideology every time -- and that's the ideology based upon liberty," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office. "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."
White House terrorism adviser Frances Fragos Townsend pointed to the report's assessment that al-Qaida will "probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of Al Qaida in Iraq," which she described as "of most concern."
She noted that the U.S. has not been attacked in six years and credited Bush's counterterrorism policies, including recent efforts to pressure Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to crack down on tribal leaders believed to be sheltering al-Qaida terrorists.
The report, warning of "a heightened threat environment," was released after a tumultuous series of events, including attempted attacks in London and a bombing at the Glasgow airport June 30, last week's siege of the Red Mosque in Pakistan, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's comment that he had a "gut feeling" the country is at greater risk of attack this summer.
There are no plans, however, to raise the national threat level, Homeland Security intelligence chief Charles Allen said at a briefing yesterday for reporters: "We are at the heightened state we should be."
The report presented details of an evolving threat from al-Qaida, whose leadership was described as recently as last year by U.S. intelligence officials as "severely damaged."
Now, intelligence officials describe a dual al-Qaida threat -- from its reinvigorated leadership and from regional terrorist start-up efforts that might be inspired by, but not directed by, al-Qaida's leadership.
"It's significant rebuilding," Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told a conference in Washington. He added that he does not believe al-Qaida is as capable as it was in 2001 but that a heightened threat will continue for "the foreseeable future."
McConnell said al-Qaida's rebuilding blocks included: establishing a "haven" in the tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border; recruiting new operational lieutenants; protecting its top leadership; and working "to position trained operatives here in the United States."
The link the intelligence report drew with the group al-Qaida in Iraq met with skepticism from some current and former intelligence officials.
One former senior intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships with former colleagues, said the declassified portions of the report said nothing about the likelihood that al-Qaida in Iraq would be capable of providing meaningful assistance to a terrorist strike in the U.S.
"The overwhelming majority are just focused on Iraq," he said.
Several former intelligence officials criticized the report's failure to analyze the factors behind al-Qaida's resurgence or how the United States could counter this rising threat.
Harman said she is increasingly worried that bin Laden will dispatch one or two lieutenants to work with al-Qaida sympathizers in the U.S. to mount an attack. The report also warned of the threat of a terrorist strike in this country by "homegrown" supporters of al-Qaida.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes of Texas called for more intelligence resources and singled out a need for more analysts and linguists at the National Security Agency.