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Declassified Report Details ‘Key Judgments’ on Iraq War

September 27, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: What exactly does the National Intelligence Estimate say about Iraq and terrorism? In response to the ongoing controversy, a small portion of the report, called “key judgments,” was declassified by the president last night.

We’ll take up four of its findings with two analysts. Daniel Benjamin was a counterterrorism official on the National Security Council staff under President Clinton. He’s co-author of the book, “The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right.”

Michael Rubin worked on Iraq policy in the Defense Department from 2002 to 2004 and advised the U.S.-led occupation authority in Iraq. He was last there in June.

Well, the first judgment, gentlemen, that comes in the declassified document says, “Although we cannot measure the extent of the spread with precision, a large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion.”

Do you agree with that, Michael Rubin?

MICHAEL RUBIN, American Enterprise Institute: I do agree with that. However, to put it in perspective, back in 1946, the predecessor of our intelligence agencies issued a report which said that the greatest threat over the horizon was the growth of radical Islam.

Then, 46 years ago, to the day — to yesterday — you had Abdel Nasser, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, you had Khrushchev hanging on the U.N. podium, and you had Fidel Castro making a four-hour rambling speech at the United Nations, and the headlines were about how the United States was losing all public opinion throughout the world. Sometimes it’s the more things change, the more they stay the same.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree with that assessment in the first judgment, David?

DANIEL BENJAMIN, Former NSC Director for Counterterrorism: Absolutely. I think the evidence is quite clear. We see, essentially, three new categories of terrorists out there: home-grown, or self-starter terrorists, who have become particularly well-known in the United States because of their activities in Europe, but they’ve also shown up in the Middle East, in the Maghreb, in Pakistan, and many other places.

We have the foreign fighters who are in Iraq, most of whom come from the immediate neighborhood and predominantly Saudi Arabia. None of these people — not none of them, but most of them were not involved in Islamic radicalism before.

And we also have thousands of Iraqi jihadists who were not there before.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, part of that same first key finding also said that the efforts of the United States have seriously damaged al-Qaida’s leadership and disrupted its operations. Do you have any quarrel with that?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: No, I don’t. I think that’s correct.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Rubin?

MICHAEL RUBIN: No, I don’t have any quarrel. I think the key point is that jihadists aren’t just spontaneous. What’s important are the financial networks which support them that provide a template upon which they grow, which is why it’s not enough just to say, “Oh, jihadists are everywhere.” Who’s funding them? Who’s training them? Who’s allowing them to increase their lethality?

'Cause celebre' for jihadists

Daniel Benjamin
Former Nat'l Security Council Staff
There's no question that Iraq is right now at the top of the list of Muslim grievances and is the number-one issue for jihadists.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's turn to a second judgment about Iraq. "The Iraq conflict has become the cause celebre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world, and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight."

Daniel Benjamin?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: I find all of those judgments to be correct. There's no question that Iraq is right now at the top of the list of Muslim grievances and is the No. 1 issue for jihadists. It is certainly the issue that jihadists who have committed terrorist acts -- for example, the Madrid bombers, the London bombers -- it's been the top thing that they have mentioned in their various tapes, in their utterances, what have you.

It's also true that the disposition of Iraq is going to have a very big impact on how the jihad continues. If these fighters leave victorious, they will feel emboldened. And if, in fact, we are successful and have a stable democratic state, then that will take a good amount of air out of their tires.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Rubin?

MICHAEL RUBIN: I largely agree. What I would say, though, is that jihadists will also have a cause celebre, whether it's Iraq, whether it's Afghanistan, whether it's Spain.

The other factor, though, is that you've also had the growth of real discussion across the Muslim world about the issue of democracy, the issue of dissent, the issue of reform. Now, many people disagree with U.S. policy and the idea of pushing this with military force, but without a doubt the debate is there.

Now, the key thing that struck me, though, which really, I think, is highlighted in the report -- I was talking to some Somali generals and talking about the growth of Islamist movement in Somalia. The rhetoric which they are using is, "We defeated" -- Islamism -- "defeated a superpower in Afghanistan. And if we defeat a superpower in Iraq, then it will be clear that the international jihad is the way to go." It really has become the linchpin in the future of jihadism.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Dan Benjamin, isn't this finding, the one we just looked at, part of all the controversy of this week, alleging both that Iraq has been the proximate cause of the creation of new terrorists, but also, as the Bush administration maintains, the battle that must be won in order to discourage future terrorists?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, there's no doubt that this finding has caused a lot of controversy in political circles, because it does call into question the Bush administration's strategy and the argument that Iraq is the central war on terror now is confronted with the counterargument, "Yes, it's very important, but you're screwing it up, and we have more terrorists than we did before, and, therefore, things are increasingly dangerous."

So I do agree that that is very much a political controversy. I have to say that, in terms of expert opinion on terrorism and on the global jihad, this is totally uncontroversial. And there are very, very few people, I think, who would argue that Iraq has not galvanized a lot of people to violence and really been a major recruitment tool for the global jihad.

Underlying factors

Michael Rubin
Former Pentagon Iraq Adviser
The fact of the matter is that, if there is more openness and more individual accountability, there could be more progress.

RAY SUAREZ: Next, a third judgment from the intelligence estimate. "Four underlying factors are fuelling the spread of the jihadist movement: one, entrenched grievances, corruption, injustice, powerlessness; two, the Iraq jihad; three, the slow pace of reforms; and, four, pervasive anti-U.S. sentiment."

Michael Rubin?

MICHAEL RUBIN: I would largely agree. I would add irresponsible governance, or highlight that, and also the widespread acceptance of both incitement and conspiracy theories and an inadequate American response to counter that incitement and to counter that irresponsible government.

RAY SUAREZ: So you're saying almost cultural factors on the ground in these countries?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Yes, indeed, cultural factors and political culture. The fact of the matter is that, if there is more openness and more individual accountability, there could be more progress.

You know, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian dissident, I thought put the dichotomy nicely when he said the trend within the Islamic world, or at least the Arab Middle East, is you have autocrats and you have theocrats. Each has a platform. Each is attacking the liberals in between, and the problem traditionally with U.S. policy is that we buy into the autocrats and we ignore -- we don't create a platform for the liberals who might actually implement responsible governance.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Dan Benjamin, the Iraq jihad is listed as one of the factors, but only one out of four, and its relationship to other things, like pervasive anti-U.S. sentiment, is not delved into further.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, that's an important reason I think why the rest of the report, or at least those parts that can be declassified, ought to be released, because I think people need to be able to examine the reasoning behind this. There's no question that these are all major drivers of radicalism.

The jihadist movement grew in large measure out of a revulsion at misgovernance in the Middle East, and particularly in Egypt, and that revulsion continues to this day. One of the reasons the United States became a target is that bin Laden and his fellow jihadists decided that they were getting beat, the movement was getting beaten at the national level, and it was time to go after the supporter or the perceived supporter of regimes such as the Egyptian one.

So these are very deep-seated, very long-term problems. And on top of that, you've got this sort of galvanizing or catalytic concern about Iraq, so it all hangs together.

Al-Qaida recruiting

Daniel Benjamin
Former Nat'l Security Council Staff
There's no question that this has become a kind of heroic narrative for disaffected young Muslims, and they look at this, and they're very much inspired by it, and that's attractive to them.

RAY SUAREZ: There was a fourth judgment that got a lot of attention: "Al-Qaida is exploiting the situation in Iraq to attract new recruits." Now, is that a controversial assertion, Michael Rubin?

MICHAEL RUBIN: No, they're certainly trying, and anyone that looks at any of their propaganda videos sees that that's happening. When al-Qaida is able to claim successful operations, they're able to better their recruitment. And when they're not, when they're seen to be shut down, that hurts their recruitment.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: In every case where a terrorism conspiracy has either been investigated after an attack or has been disrupted before the attack -- in Europe, for example -- the investigators have found a library of Internet downloads showing either decapitations, assassinations, successful bombing attacks in Iraq.

There's no question that this has become a kind of heroic narrative for disaffected young Muslims, and they look at this, and they're very much inspired by it, and that's attractive to them.

RAY SUAREZ: Let's try to get down to some bottom lines here, for instance, on the impact of the Iraq war, on the number of people worldwide with the willingness and the ability to kill Americans. What do you think?

MICHAEL RUBIN: The willingness and the ability are two different things. This is why I'm saying that it's not just the emotional revulsion that might be promoted by some inciting satellite stations that's responsible.

It's the people who are giving the money and actually giving the actual training. And for that, they existed before the Iraq invasion and after the Iraq invasion. We had international jihadists kill Americans throughout the 1990s and perhaps earlier than that, as well.

Iraq has become a center point of focus. It's amplified attention to the problems, but it hasn't itself created the problems.

RAY SUAREZ: Dan Benjamin?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, I think, actually, their willingness has increased and certainly their capabilities have increased. Iraq has become the best on-the-job training the jihadists have ever had.

Attitudes before and after 9/11

Michael Rubin
Former Pentagon Iraq Adviser
The real problem are the people that are training and funding. That's not spontaneity. That's preplanned networks, and that's what we need to get at.

RAY SUAREZ: But what about Michael Rubin's point that these factors existed, and in ample supply, before both the invasion of Iraq and, indeed, September 11th?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, we would have faced a serious challenge from the global jihad no matter what after 9/11, but the challenge has been magnified enormously by Iraq.

Look, 50,000 to 150,000 Iraqis have been killed during the period that we've been in, in the country, and this has caused enormous anger at the United States, and it has moved some people to violence. It is true that the movement would have existed; they would have found a grievance. But I think there are just many, many more people who are interested and capable than there were before.

RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly, Michael -- I've got to get an answer to that -- magnified by Iraq or not affected by Iraq?

MICHAEL RUBIN: I think what's affected by Iraq is the attention to the problem, not the problem itself. The real problem are the people that are training and funding. That's not spontaneity. That's preplanned networks, and that's what we need to get at.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Rubin, Daniel Benjamin, thank you both.