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Threats beyond Iraq

The National Intelligence Estimate is a clarion call for Americans to guard against complacency.

July 19, 2007

ANATURAL TEMPTATION -- to which some commentators already have succumbed -- is to view the new National Intelligence Estimate on terror threats exclusively through the prism of the Bush administration's dispute with Congress over Iraq.

President Bush, who habitually engages in the strategic conflation of the post-9/11 war on terror with the war in Iraq, sees vindication in the report's conclusion that Al Qaeda will seek to "leverage" its Iraqi affiliate to attack the United States. His critics suggest that its broader conclusion -- that Al Qaeda "will continue to enhance its capabilities to attack the homeland" -- is hyperbole designed to intimidate the antiwar movement.

Both take too narrow a view of the report. Its overarching conclusion transcends Iraq: "We judge [that] the U.S. homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years." At the same time, it warns, international cooperation to root out terrorists could wane "as 9/11 becomes a more distant memory and perceptions of the threat diverge."

Some will dismiss this warning as only slightly more useful than Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's now-famous comment that he had a "gut feeling" the nation faced a heightened risk of terrorist attacks this summer. More likely, the secretary's intestinal unease was a reaction to the intelligence that gave rise to the estimate.

Nor do we believe the release of the report was a ploy to scare Americans into supporting the president. Actually, the report is as much an embarrassment to the administration as it is a vindication. The language about Al Qaeda in Iraq that Bush seized on can be read as the logical follow-up to an observation in a previous estimate that "the Iraq conflict has become the 'cause celebre' for jihadists." At the time, critics of the war interpreted that as a judgment on Bush's decision to invade Iraq in the first place, and they were right. Even more embarrassing to the administration is the report's conclusion that Al Qaeda's regeneration is attributable to the creation of havens in Pakistan. This should stiffen the spine of U.S. diplomats in dealing with President Pervez Musharraf.

But the report should have even wider repercussions in Congress and the country. It isn't just other nations for whom 9/11 has become a "distant memory." The passage of time without another terrorist outrage on American soil has inspired complacency about continuing dangers and a reluctance to address issues -- such as the proper balance between liberty and security in an age of terror -- that are certain to recur. And that is not a "gut feeling."

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