Hyping the intelligence again?

How the actual threat from al-Qaida in Iraq seems to shift depending on who's talking.

July 17, 2007 10:56PM (UTC)
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Like many other Americans this morning, when I reached for my coffee and read the paper, I was shocked to see that a new National Intelligence Estimate says we are suddenly in grave danger of another terrorist attack. And the scariest thing is that it's the dreaded "al-Qaida in Iraq," working in cahoots with the big kahuna, Osama bin Laden, who are threatening to come over here and kill us all in our beds:

Of note, we assess that al-Qaida will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the homeland.

That sounds very bad. How odd then to read this, in a different article in the same newspaper:

U.S. intelligence analysts, however, have a somewhat different view of al-Qaeda's presence in Iraq, noting that the local branch takes its inspiration but not its orders from bin Laden. Its enemies -- the overwhelming majority of whom are Iraqis -- reside in Baghdad and Shiite-majority areas of Iraq, not in Saudi Arabia or the United States. While intelligence officials have described the Sunni insurgent group calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq as an "accelerant" for violence, they have cited domestic sectarian divisions as the main impediment to peace.

Like so much of Washington reporting, you have to sift through the runes to decipher what these two articles are actually telling us. I'm guessing that we are once again dealing with a battle of the intelligence agencies. One group, we don't know which, is saying that al-Qaida in Iraq is working with bin Laden to strike in the United States, and the administration is hyping it to justify the occupation. Another group is telling us that al-Qaida in Iraq is really a separate group that has its own agenda and we needn't worry that it is interested in the United States. This will logically be used to justify ending the occupation. It's up to the reader to decide what is true.

The only thing we really have to go on is our experience with members of the Bush administration and NIEs, which hardly lends much credibility to their claims. They have a nasty little habit of twisting the facts, after all. Still, it does stand to reason that, with bin Laden running free and the successful jihadist recruitment the Bush administration's errors and misjudgments have brought about, the terrorist threat would be raised. Nobody can deny that many, many more people in the world hate America than hated it before George W. Bush took office.

But considering the fact that the post-Iraq war games specifically say that an American withdrawal would not increase the local terrorists' strength, the idea that this threat comes especially from the "al-Qaida in Iraq" boogeyman should probably be greeted with skepticism. There is good reason to be suspicious that the administration is hyping the Iraq terrorist threat at a time when Congress is getting serious about reining it in. (We know members of the administration like to "introduce product" according to a political timetable.) With its track record of dishonestly conflating the terrorist threat with Iraq (as well as crying wolf dozens of times over the years here in the homeland) it's completely fair to take into account that foreign policies based on the Bush administration's "threat assessments" haven't exactly worked out very well. A second, third and fourth outside opinion should always be required from these people. As the president himself famously said, "Fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again."


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