By Katherine Shrader and Anne Flaherty
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON D.C. — The terrorist network Al-Qaida will likely leverage its contacts and capabilities in Iraq to mount an attack on U.S. soil, according to a new National Intelligence Estimate on threats to the United States.
The declassified key findings, to be released publicly on Tuesday, were obtained in advance by The Associated Press.
The report lays out a range of dangers — from al-Qaida to Lebanese Hezbollah to non-Muslim radical groups — that pose a "persistent and evolving threat" to the country over the next three years. As expected, however, the findings focus most of their attention on the gravest terror problem: Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
The report makes clear that al-Qaida in Iraq, which has not yet posed a direct threat to U.S. soil, could become a problem here.
"Of note," the analysts said, "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."
The analysts also found that al-Qaida's association with its Iraqi affiliate helps the group to energize the broader Sunni Muslim extremist community, raise resources and recruit and indoctrinate operatives — "including for homeland attacks."
National Intelligence Estimates are the most authoritative written judgments of the 16 spy agencies across the breadth of the U.S. government. These agencies reflect the consensus long-term thinking of top intelligence analysts. Portions of the documents are occasionally declassified for public release.
The White House brushed off critics who allege the administration released the intelligence estimate at the same time the Senate is debating Iraq. White House press secretary Tony Snow pushed back at the critics Tuesday, saying they are "engaged in a little selective hearing themselves to shape the story in their own political ways."
"We don't keep it on the shelf and say `Let's look for a convenient time,'" Snow said.
"We're trying to remind people is that this is a real threat. This is not an attempt to divert. As a matter of fact ... we would much rather — one of the things we'd like to do is call attention to the successes in the field" in Iraq, he said.
Democrats said the report was proof U.S. anti-terrorism efforts were being drained by the Iraq war.
"We must responsibly redeploy our troops out of Iraq, handing responsibility for security over to the Iraqis and leaving only those forces required for limited missions," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "This will allow us to concentrate our efforts on Afghanistan and the al-Qaida terrorists who attacked us on 9/11."
House Republican leader Rep. John Boehner of Ohio said the report confirms gains made by Bush and blamed Democrats for being too soft on terrorism.
"Retreat is not a new way forward when the safety and security of future generations of Americans are at stake," he said in a statement.
The new report echoed statements made by senior intelligence officials over the last year, including the assessment of spy agencies that the country is in a "heightened threat environment." It also provided new details on their thinking and concerns.
For instance, the report says that worldwide counterterrorism efforts since 2001 have constrained al-Qaida's ability to attack the U.S. again and convinced terror groups that U.S. soil is a tougher target.
But, the report quickly adds, analysts are concerned "that this level of international cooperation may wane as 9/11 becomes a more distant memory and perceptions of the threat diverge."
Among the report's other findings:
-Al-Qaida is likely to continue to focus on high-profile political, economic and infrastructure targets to cause mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, economic aftershocks and fear. "The group is proficient with conventional small arms and improvised explosive devices and is innovative in creating new capabilities and overcoming security obstacles."
-The group has been able to restore key capabilities it would need to launch an attack on U.S. soil: a safe haven in Pakistan's tribal areas, operational lieutenants and senior leaders. U.S. officials have warned publicly that a deal between the Pakistani government and tribal leaders allowed al-Qaida to plot and train more freely in parts of western Pakistan for the last 10 months.
-The group will continue to seek weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological or nuclear material — and "would not hesitate to use them."
-Lebanese Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim extremist group that has conducted anti-American attacks overseas, may be more likely to consider attacking here, especially if it believes the United States is directly threatening the group or its main sponsor, Iran.
-Non-Muslim terrorist groups probably will attack here in the next several years, although on a smaller scale. The judgments don't name any specific groups, but the FBI often warns of violent environmental groups, such as Earth Liberation Front, and others.
The publicly disclosed judgments, laid out over two pages, are part of a longer document, which remains classified. It was approved by the heads of all 16 intelligence agencies on June 21.
In the last week, reports on this document and another threat assessment on al-Qaida's resurgence have renewed the debate in Washington about whether the Bush administration is on the right course in its war on terror, particularly in Iraq.
The White House has used the reports as evidence that the country must continue to go after al-Qaida in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But critics say the evolving threat is evidence of a policy gone wrong.
The debate — and the underlying global problem — will not go away soon.
The high-level estimate notes that the spread of radical ideas, especially on the Internet, growing anti-U.S. rhetoric and increasing numbers of radical cells throughout Western countries indicate the violent segments of the Muslim populations is expanding.
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"The arrest and prosecution by U.S. law enforcement of a small number of violent Islamic extremists inside the United States ... points to the possibility that others may become sufficiently radicalized that they will view the use of violence here as legitimate," the estimate said. "We assess that this internal Muslim terrorist threat is not likely to be as severe as it is in Europe, however."