According to my calendar, it's still September, but elements within the intelligence community have already launched their "October surprise," leaking elements of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that concludes that the global terror threat has increased because of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. The preferred stenography services of intelligence leakers, The New York Times and the Washington Post, featured the assessment in front-page stories in today's editions, just in time for the Sunday chat shows.
After initially noting that it was not involved in the preparation of the NIE and its analysis, the White House began firing back, stating that accounts in the Times and Post are "not representative of the full document," according to spokesman Peter Watkins. We can only hope that the Bush Administration sees fit to release other portions of the report in the coming days, to provide a needed counter-balance to MSM accounts.
The Times (in particular) tries to depict the NIE as an assessment that represents the broad consensus of the sixteen agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community. In theory, that may be true, but as someone who's participated in the NIE process in the past, I can assure you that some agencies are more equal than others. For example, given the focus and scope of this report, it seems rather doubtful that the U.S. Coast Guard (now officially a member of the intel community) had much input into the NIE; ditto for the Office of Naval Intelligence, Department of the Treasury and other agencies that are--officially--full members of our intel apparatus.
In fact, the primary contributors to this NIE were likely the CIA, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), with assistance from experts at the National Intelligence Council (NIC), the senior advisory panel that is gradually assuming overall responsibility for the nation's overall analytic effort. According to the Times, the conclusion of this NIE seems to confirm predictions from a pre-war, 2003 NIC assessment which warned of a possible increase in terrorism following a conflict in Iraq. It's worth noting that the earlier NIC report was drafted under the old intelligence community structure, when the CIA dominated both the NIC and assessments of this type. In other words, it was quite likely that administration critics played a key role in drafting the original document, and the more recent NIE. Readers will also note that the NIE was published in April, but the leak was delayed until it could provide more political benefit.
As for its conclusions, it appears that the Times, the Post and their sources have been somewhat selective in extracting information from the intelligence estimate. The Times notes that "an opening section of the report cites the Iraq War as a reason for the diffusion of jihad ideology." Presumably, there are other reasons as well--which the paper promptly ignores. Media accounts also resort to another familiar ploy, largely ignoring the beginnings of the jihadits movement in the 1970s and 80s, and its steady growth in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was supposedly doing "all he could" to battle global terrorism. Juding from the Times and WaPo, Islamic terrorism is a recent invention that began on George W. Bush's watch.
The report also concludes that the jihadist movement has expanded "from a core of Al Qaida operatives and affiliated groups to include a new class of self-generating cells," inspired by the group's leadership, but with no direct connection to Al Qaida. However, that's a very narrow view of cause and effect, since it credits the Iraq War for creating more terrorists, but fails to acknowledge that the conflict has forced terrorists into de-centralized operations. There is absolutely no indication that Osama bin Laden and his inner circle planned to surrender active leadership of their global terror network after 9-11, but the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan put them on the run, and our effort in Iraq forced them to shift their focus to that arena. It would be interesting to note if the NIE team considered how many new attacks might have been launched on the U.S. homeland without our incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq.
For the record, I haven't read the NIE, and it's difficult to draw accurate conclusions from cherry-picked media accounts. On the whole, our response to the events of 9-11 probably created more terrorists--just as our entry into WWII resulted in the expansion of German and Japanese Armies. But there is also evidence that the recruits entering the jihad today are not the same caliber of those who signed on several years ago. They are deadly on the streets of Baghdad (where the only requirements are blind obedience and a willingness to die for the cause), but less capable of mounting complex, large-scale attacks like those of five years ago.
If the NIE is as one-sided and as pessimistic as the Times indicates, then it does a grave disservice to both the intelligence community and the nation as a whole. It also suggests that our intelligence analytical process remains fatally flawed--an equally grave cause for concern.