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Intelligence Report Finds War Increasing Terrorist Threat

September 25, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is fomenting Islamic radicalism around the world and is increasing the threat of terrorism; that’s the assessment revealed in newspaper reports about a classified National Intelligence Estimate.

Excerpts from the document said Iraq is serving as a training ground for would-be terrorists who are determined to fight against the West. The intelligence estimate said the threat has evolved, changing from a core of al-Qaida fighters and related groups, to a new and wide-ranging body of cells acting independently of Osama bin Laden. And radicals have spread their ideology with the help of the Internet, according to the intelligence analysis.

TERRORIST RECRUITING VIDEO NARRATOR: … after the crimes of the administrations of the U.S., and Britain, and Iraq, we have chosen our future.

SPENCER MICHELS: It says they have made the war in Iraq an effective tool for recruiting more Islamic extremists willing to act. Details of the report, which is a consensus view of the CIA and 15 other United States intelligence services, appeared in major newspapers over the weekend.

Democrats were quick in responding to the news. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that the report is, quote, “further proof that the war in Iraq is making it harder for America to fight and win the war on terror.”

But the director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, in an e-mail sent to news organizations yesterday, said the published reports missed many of the nuances of the complete estimate. He said, “While there is much that remains to be done in the war on terror, we have achieved some notable successes against the global jihadist threat.” He continued, “The conclusions of the intelligence community are designed to be comprehensive, and viewing them through the narrow prism of a fraction of judgments distorts the broad framework they create.”

Today, Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the administration would bolster its case by declassifying the full report.

A statement of the obvious

Paul Pillar
Former CIA Official
[W]e've seen a progression of tactics during that time getting more skillful, whether it's the improvised explosive devices or anything else. So the evidence both on the recruitment side and on the training ground side, has been all too plain.

JIM LEHRER: We get two additional views now of the intelligence report. The first is from former CIA official Paul Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the agency. He was national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, and, before that, deputy director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center.

There was an unnamed intelligence official quoted in the Washington Post story that said what this actually did was state the obvious. How would you characterize it?

PAUL PILLAR, Former Deputy Director, CIA Counterterrorism Center: I would characterize it the same way, Jim. One of the things noted in your report was how the war has served as a sort of recruitment poster and recruiting device. Well, that's something that's plain for all to see. The videotapes and audiotapes from the likes of Zawahiri, and bin Laden, and the other terrorist recruitment efforts has made that quite clear.

The other major thing, Iraq as a training ground, well, that's something that our military is dealing with every day, has been for the last three and a half years. And we've seen a progression of tactics during that time getting more skillful, whether it's the improvised explosive devices or anything else.

So the evidence, if you will, both on the recruitment side and on the training ground side, has been all too plain.

JIM LEHRER: So it didn't take a bunch of intelligence experts to figure this out? Anybody could have figured this out, is what you're saying?

PAUL PILLAR: It certainly didn't take that. Now, no doubt, behind this estimate there were many other batches of intelligence reporting that lay behind whatever judgments the community came up with. But on those key aspects in which the Iraq war has influenced the nature and degree of terrorist threat, that is stating the obvious.

Intelligence suppliers, consumers

JIM LEHRER: Now, tell us about this National Intelligence Estimate. Every once in a while, one of them gets leaked. This one is said to contain 30 pages of information. Is that pretty much what they are, about 30 pages?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, they vary greatly, Jim, over the years. They used to be much longer ones about Soviet strategic forces in years past. There's always been an emphasis to try to make them shorter and punchier, because shorter, punchier things tend to get read more by the consumers. But that would be a typical length, yes.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, who writes these estimates?

PAUL PILLAR: They are written by analysts inside the intelligence community, possibly from the CIA, possibly from the Defense Intelligence Agency, possibly from the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department.

They are all part of the community in whose name the National Intelligence Council under Director Negroponte speaks when they produce these estimates. So you draft -- drafting talent wherever it happens to be inside the community.

JIM LEHRER: So somebody, either Negroponte or somebody under Negroponte, takes all of this information that comes in from the CIA and 14 other intelligence agencies, and then decides what goes in it, what's relevant, what isn't relevant, what supports a case, what doesn't, you know, whatever?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, National Intelligence Estimates, we should remember, are just one of many different analytic products that the community produces, both as a community and as individual agencies, be it CIA, DIA, or what have you. They are a distillation of things that the analysts throughout the community have been studying and pronouncing on, probably in dozens of other products in the previous year or two.

The director, Mr. Negroponte, is in charge of the whole thing. He has a National Intelligence Council, led by Mr. Thomas Fingar, who used to head the intelligence operation at the State Department.

And under them are the kinds of jobs that I used to hold, national intelligence officers, either for a particular region or for particular issues. And that is the person, the so-called NIO, who actually manages the process, recruits the drafter, oversees the coordination.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you talked about consumers. Who are the consumers for this report?

PAUL PILLAR: Everyone from the president on down, and this varies greatly with the particular topics, in terms of what gets read. On the more sensitive things, the more politically sensitive things, in particular, you can assume that the higher ranking policymakers will read them. But there are many other topics where it's more at the working level, in the military or among our diplomats, who actually may find the judgments most useful.

JIM LEHRER: Who makes the decision as to who sees any given estimate?

PAUL PILLAR: Most estimates have a fairly wide distribution within the government. They may be classified at the top-secret level, but a lot of people have top-secret clearances, after all. There are a few sensitive ones that get a more restricted dissemination.

Keeping an expectation for a leak

Paul Pillar
Former CIA Official
I would guess -- and not knowing the substance of this particular estimate -- but I would guess that any estimate that purported to be an overall look at the state of international terrorism today would have a lot of good news stories in it, too.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Is it unusual for one of these to be leaked to the press as widely as this one was?

PAUL PILLAR: Oh, Jim, it seems like we've had a succession of topics related to either Iraq or terrorism that, because they are politically sensitive and politically charged, bits and pieces get leaked. You may recall there was another National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq around 2004 that got partly leaked.

We never like to see that happen. I use the "we," going back into my previous incarnation. It's a complication, certainly, for the people who produced them.

JIM LEHRER: Why? Why?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, I think Director Negroponte made one of the most relevant points in the quote that you put on the screen, that when you have a bit or piece of an estimate that's only a piece -- that might be, you know, two pages out of your 30-page paper -- it does give a distorted impression.

In this case, I would guess -- and not knowing the substance of this particular estimate -- but I would guess that any estimate that purported to be an overall look at the state of international terrorism today would have a lot of good news stories in it, too.

For example, the extent of foreign cooperation by our allies and others on counterterrorist matters which has improved, I think, over the last several years, or the fact that many of the al-Qaida operatives at the mid- and even senior levels have been either killed or incarcerated over the last few years. No doubt there are other parts of the estimate that addressed those.

JIM LEHRER: Does your smell tell you that what somebody did was go through the 30 pages and find a couple of sharp points and leak those?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, Jim, you're a Washington veteran. You know that that's exactly the way it works.

JIM LEHRER: Yes... Do these estimates normally have sharp edges within them? Are they usually kind of "on the one hand" this and "on the other hand" that?

PAUL PILLAR: One of the objectives of intelligence community management is to try to keep them sharp. One of the criticisms through the years of many estimates have been that it is the lowest common denominator, that they aren't sharp enough.

So the people who hold those positions that I mentioned before, from Ambassador Negroponte on down, are always trying to make them sharp. Now, there's a trade-off there, because, if you have the sharp judgments, then you have these little tidbits, if you will, that do make tempting fodder for would-be leakers.

JIM LEHRER: For the record, has anybody ever gone to jail for leaking one of these things, that you recall? I couldn't find one anywhere today.

PAUL PILLAR: Not that I'm aware of, no.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Is it within the community, the intelligence community, when you sit down to write an intelligence estimate, do you assume that eventually it's going to get out?

PAUL PILLAR: That's always at least in the backs of people's minds who are involved in these things. And it would be naive to think that estimates or any other intelligence community products are written in the assumption that it's never, ever going to become public.

And I think there have been experiences -- I've had experiences in the past in which certain things were tread on lightly, shall we say, either in the sense of not venturing a judgment where we didn't have to venture a judgment, because there would be no way of making it without providing that kind of tempting fodder for would-be leakers. Yes, it is in the backs of one's minds all the time.

A losing war against terrorism?

Paul Pillar
Former CIA Official

JIM LEHRER: Back to the substance, at least as far as we know it at this point, and what Iraqi President Talabani told Ray Suarez in an interview we're going to see in a moment, he said that he doesn't agree with the finding that it increases the terrorist threat on the United States because the terrorists are on all now focused on Iraq. Does that make sense to you?

PAUL PILLAR: No, it doesn't. Well, it makes sense for the president of Iraq to say it because the president of Iraq has to have Iraqi interests uppermost in mind, and evidently President Talabani have concluded, as have many other Iraqi officials, that keeping the U.S. presence there longer rather than shorter amount of time is in Iraqi interest.

But his point about all the terrorists in the world are being attracted to Iraq -- this is the flypaper theory -- and therefore they're going to stay away from the United States, the flaw in that is we don't have a fixed number of terrorists in the world. I think the more appropriate comeback to that was what Secretary Rumsfeld raised the question in another leaked memo, a year or so ago, as you may recall.

JIM LEHRER: I do.

PAUL PILLAR: And the question was, "Are we breeding more terrorists faster than killing or incarcerating the ones we already have?" That's really the issue that is at stake here with the Iraq war.

JIM LEHRER: And if what's been in the press is correct, this intelligence estimate appears to suggest that we are breeding more than we're catching, is that right?

PAUL PILLAR: It does. And that's my judgment, as well.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, OK. Mr. Pillar, thank you very much.

PAUL PILLAR: You're quite welcome.