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National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism

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(NOTE FROM JOHN: AJ is a recent former Defense Intelligence officer who spent two years working on Iraq policy.)

The recently-declassified NIE titled "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States", which was finalized nearly six months ago, is a devastating repudiation of virtually everything leading Executive and Defense Department leaders have told Americans about the war on terror.

As I've written before, the most important thing to look for in this kind of analysis is trends. Events are different than how things are going in general, and here's an example: the report states that U.S. efforts have damaged the leadership of al-Qa'ida and "disrupted" is operations, which is almost certainly true. There have been plenty of operations disrupted. But that's a summary of events, not a trend. More important is the follow-up that "the global jihadist movement . . . is spreading and adapting to counterterrorism efforts." Event: we've done some good. Trend: things are getting worse, not better.

Much of the initial assessment is uncontroversial. Jihadism is decentralized, it's expanding, self-radicalized cells (especially in Europe) are a growing threat, etc. The real meat, both analytically and politically, involves Iraq. Bear in mind that the report focuses on Terrorism, not Iraq per se, so it's instructive that a great deal of the summary addresses Iraq.

The Iraq portion begins somewhat dubiously, with the statement that "perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere." That's disingenuous to the extent that jihadists already perceive success and fighters have already moved beyond Iraq (claiming responsibility for attacks in Jordan and other Gulf states). The assessment that Iraq "is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives" is also not surprising, though I think more people should realize that a similar situation in Afghanistan caused the rise of al-Qa'ida in the first place. No matter how or when we leave, there will be trained and angry operatives who will lash out in the future.

But to me, the most important, the scariest, and the most damning part of the entire summary is this single sentence:

We assess that the underlying factors fueling the spread of the movement outweigh its vulnerabilities are are likely to do so for the duration of the timefram of this Estimate.
Ladies and gentlemen, that's the ballgame right there. What this intelspeak means in English is, "The causes fueling terrorism outweigh the vulnerabilities of terrorists and their networks, and that fact is likely to be true indefinitely." The assessment is saying that the main motivations for terrorism -- and the report puts Iraq at the top of that long list -- outweigh our ability to prevent it, meaning, essentially, that Iraq is more harmful than helpful in our counterterror strategy. I already knew that, and so did most readers here, but I don't think that's the conventional wisdom. Until now, at least. Anyone who defends the Iraq war now has to answer this question: The collective judgment of the entire U.S. intelligence community is that under the watch of the Bush administration terrorism is becoming more of a threat, not less of one, primarily due to Iraq. Do you support continuing that failure, or changing the course to solve it?

The Bush administration is trying to spin the findings, saying that they reflect previous statements, but this response is pathetic. The spin conflates fact with trend, basically saying that President Bush has stated some of the facts contained in the report (shorter version: "The report says al-Qa'ida is bad. President Bush has said al-Qa'ida is bad!") while failing to address the assessment that things are getting worse, not better.

One more time, because it's really a remarkable assessment, despite being in bureaucrat-speak:
We assess that the underlying factors fueling the spread of the movement outweight its vulnerabilities and are likely to do so for the duration of the timeframe of this Estimate.
Those underlying factors are listed as, basically, entrenched grievances and humiliation; Iraq; lack of political reform in Muslim nations; and pervasive anti-U.S. sentiment among most muslims. These are all interconnected, of course, and Bush administration policies, especially its intransigence on Iraq, are hurting more than they are helping. Analysts are generally discouraged from offering policy suggestions (that's for policymakers, not interpreters of information), but this transcends that usual prohibition a little, and the strongest statement is this:
Countering the spread of the jihadist movement will require coordinated multilateral efforts that go well beyond operations to capture or kill terrorist leaders.
That is a concept this administration, and its rubber-stamp Congress, simply doesn't seem able to grasp.

The report is definitive, provocative, and damning, and every day between now and the elections Democrats -- and sane Republicans -- should demand accountability for these unconscionable failures of Presidential and Congressional leadership.

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