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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Beware the NIE: Careful, Democrats: The Notion that the Iraq War is Creating More Terrorists May be False

by Robert Dreyfuss

A rollicking controversy has developed over the leaked U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism, apparently the first comprehensive U.S. intelligence product on terrorism since the 1990s. So far, nearly all of the coverage—and the superheated political debate around it—has revolved around the NIE’s reported conclusion that the war in Iraq has inflamed anti-American passions in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Paraphrasing the NIE, and stating its conclusions in its own words, The New York Times , which broke the story on Sept. 24, reported that the war and the occupation of Iraq has “helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism” and adds that “the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.” The headline in the Times proclaimed: “Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terrorism Threat.”

That conclusion, that the war in Iraq is creating terrorists, was treated as manna from heaven by Democrats, and not surprisingly. At first glance, the NIE seems to drive a stake through the heart of President Bush’s central argument for the continuing war in Iraq—namely, that the war is making Americans safer. Ted Kennedy used a similarly grim metaphor, calling the NIE “the final nail in the coffin for President Bush’s phony argument about the Iraq war.”

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There’s no denying that the war in Iraq has had a catastrophic effect on American interests. It has opened a festering wound at the heart of the Middle East, a vortex of violence that threatens to fragment the nation of Iraq and spill over Iraq’s borders into all six of its neighbors. The war has inflamed Arab and Muslim public opinion against the United States. It has alienated America’s allies, particularly in Europe and the Middle East. It has cheered or emboldened America’s adversaries and rivals, including China and Russia. And it has fueled the sort of anti-Americanism articulated by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez at the United Nations last week.

But is the war in Iraq producing more terrorists? I don’t think so. And until I read the whole text of the NIE—which hasn’t been released—and until I sort out the politics of how it was produced, I’m not convinced that the U.S. intelligence community think so, either.

It’s important to remember that the NIE, begun in 2004, took two years before it was published, in its current classified version. It went through several iterations, pushed and pulled by Bush administration politicos. The Times, in breaking the story, reported that “some government officials were unhappy with the structure and focus of earlier versions of the document.” According to my sources, those unhappy with the document were mostly at the Pentagon, and centered around the neoconservatives, who undoubtedly used their influence with the White House, Vice President Cheney, and intelligence czar John Negroponte—who approved the final version of the NIE—to make changes they wanted. It’s not as if an NIE is a pristine, values-free report. Instead (remember the bogus NIE on Iraq’s WMD in 2002) it is often a highly politicized document, especially in the Bush administration.

In their eagerness to knock down Bush’s war in Iraq by using reports about the NIE, the Democrats risk giving another boost to the president in the “other” war, namely, the so-called war on terrorism. By embracing the NIE’s reported conclusion that the war in Iraq has made the threat of terrorism worse, the Democrats play into Bush’s strong suit. While most Americans think that the war in Iraq is wrong and not worth fighting, polls continue to show that support for President Bush as the commander in chief of the Global War on Terror. Ironically, by endorsing the idea that radical Islamist terrorism is a major threat to the United States, the Democrats could end up driving U.S. voters into the arms of the president once again.

Since August, the president and his political team have been trying to “change the subject” from Iraq, where they are weak, to terrorism, where they believe that they are strong. By provoking sharp controversies over issues such as electronic surveillance by the National Security Agency and by aggressively asserting the need to torture terrorist detainees, the White House has sought to put Democrats on the defensive, portraying them as lily-livered vacillators unwilling to take ugly but necessary steps against the terrorist enemy. So far, whether this cynical (and un-American) strategy is working isn’t clear. But the image of the president as terrorist-fighter is a powerful one, still.

So what, exactly, does the NIE say about Iraq and terrorism? We don’t know. So far, at least, none of the reports about the NIE—in the Times, in the Washington Post, in the Los Angeles Times —have quoted even one word (other than the title: “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States,” according to the Post) from the NIE itself, which is classified top secret. Until the NIE is declassified and made public, or until someone leaks it in its entirety, we aren’t likely to get more than versions of from second-hand sources.

My own discussions with top, former U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials do indeed reflect an understanding in the intelligence community that the war in Iraq has inflamed radicalism in the Muslim world. Indeed, that has been widely understood for more than three years, and many of these same officials predicted exactly that before the war in Iraq, when they warned that the looming invasion would generate anti-American anger and bitterness.

But it is a long leap from anti-Americanism to terrorism. Arabs and Muslims seized with hatred or disdain from the United States have many options besides forming a terrorist cell. They can vote for Hamas, if they are in Palestine, and they’ve done that. They can vote for Hezbollah and join its militia, in Lebanon, and they’ve done that. They can join the anti-U.S. Sunni insurgency in Iraq, and they’ve done that. They can oppose moderate, pro-American regimes in Cairo, Amman, Riyadh, and Islamabad, and they’ve done that, too. And so on.

But if they are becoming terrorists, it isn’t evident. If the war in Iraq is producing hundreds, or thousands, or millions of recruits for Osama bin Laden, well, where are they? As I’ve written for (“There Is No War on Terror”), al-Qaida’s organization has been devastated. Since 9/11, there have been zero incidents of terrorism within the United States, and only a tiny handful in Western Europe. When the U.S. invasion of Iraq was launched in March 2003, the CIA and FBI issued special alerts in the United States in expectation that either Iraq or al-Qaida might retaliate by making use of sleeper cells in the United States. (We now know that Iraq had no terrorist ties, and that al-Qaida had no sleeper cells in the United States.) So it is fair to ask: If indeed the war in Iraq is creating legions of new terrorists, why haven’t they attacked us?

It’s a mistake, and a dangerous one, to confuse anti-Americanism with terrorism. Even states that militantly oppose U.S. policy in the Middle East, such as Iran and Syria, haven’t used terrorist proxies against us. Violent insurgencies, such as Hezbollah and Hamas—along with Islamist insurgencies in Pakistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, Algeria and the Philippines—haven’t attacked us, either.

So, why is it that we want to reduce all of our enemies, opponents and adversaries to the single category of terrorist? Why is it so convenient to demonize our opponents in that manner? The use of the word “terrorist” instantly dehumanizes the other side, making it into something devilish, or insane, or maniacal. The Bush administration has perfected this technique to a fine art. Rather than joining in, the Democrats need to stop talking about terrorism at every turn and refuse to join the Republicans in their facile use of the demon-word, terrorism. It’s time to change the subject.

Robert Dreyfuss is an Alexandria, Va.-based writer specializing in politics and national security issues. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005), a contributing editor at The Nation, and a writer for Mother Jones , The American Prospect and Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website,

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Beware the NIE: Careful, Democrats: The Notion that the Iraq War is Creating More Terrorists May be False


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