NEW LONDON, CONN. — President Bush on Wednesday sought to bolster his argument that terrorism in Iraq poses a threat to the U.S., offering details from previously classified intelligence to underscore his warning that the war was at a "pivotal moment."
The 2-year-old information, declassified by the White House a day earlier, provided new information about what Bush described as orders from Osama bin Laden to a key ally in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, to develop plans for terrorist strikes in other countries, including the United States.
He outlined the intelligence in a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy here, drawing criticism from opponents over his practice of divulging national security secrets to back up his case for the war. As in previous instances in which he declassified intelligence, Bush cited the information to show a continuing threat to Americans.
"I've often warned that if we fail in Iraq, the enemy will follow us home. Many ask, how do you know? Today, I'd like to share some information with you that attests to Al Qaeda's intentions," Bush told the graduating cadets.
He went on to list a series of plots, all previously described by U.S. authorities, and offered what he said was new information about the Bin Laden directive to Zarqawi. Bush did not say Wednesday whether the alleged cell ever became operational and, if so, what kind of plots it envisioned.
But several lawmakers and counter-terrorism officials said they knew of no instances in which Zarqawi-led operatives had succeeded in entering the United States.
"I've learned to be a little bit skeptical of the initial comments of the president on these things," said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's terrorism subpanel. "As the information comes out, we'll have to drill down to learn more about the specific threat -- whether there was anything to it, if there are any specifics."
The existence of such an effort by Al Qaeda is not new; U.S. authorities have suspected for more than two years that Bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, wanted to expand Zarqawi's footprint outside Iraq and have him launch an attack on U.S. soil.
The Homeland Security Department issued a classified bulletin in March 2005 warning of the plan. At the time, the intelligence was described as credible but not specific, and did not prompt the administration to raise the national terrorism alert level.
Some of the president's critics on Wednesday cited what they considered a misguided and misleading effort to link the war in Iraq with the broader counter-terrorism campaign.
"Yet again, the selective release of intelligence to buttress the notion that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism undermines the intelligence community and fails to make the case," said Rand Beers, formerly the top Bush White House counter-terrorism official, and now one of its vocal critics.
Beers said Bush was trying to portray Iraq as a base for Al Qaeda's worldwide movement, when the organization is more centered along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where a U.S. search has faltered.
Bush has disclosed intelligence secrets before. In 2005, he referred to 10 foiled terrorist plots in defense of his foreign policy. A year later, he divulged portions of a high-level intelligence report to rebut leaks in news reports about the effect of the Iraq war on Islamic radicalism worldwide. And earlier this year, an intelligence report with mixed findings about Iraq was released to back up Bush's new strategy of building up troop levels.
Frances Townsend, the administration's domestic security and counter-terrorism advisor, told reporters aboard Air Force One before the address Wednesday that the administration waited to make sure it had "gotten through all the leads" and that releasing the information would not compromise the usefulness of the intelligence.
"Frankly, if political advantage was the name of the game, we would have gotten it a lot sooner," she said.
Bush said the intelligence showed that in January 2005, Bin Laden tasked Zarqawi with setting up a cell that would use Iraq as a staging ground for attacks in the U.S. and elsewhere.
At the time, Zarqawi was Al Qaeda's senior leader in Iraq after years of operating quasi-independently. He was killed in Iraq in a June 2006 U.S. airstrike.
Bush said two of Bin Laden's top operational commanders, Abu Hamza Rabia and Abu Faraj Libbi, were involved with Zarqawi's efforts to create the cell. Bin Laden emphasized that America should be Zarqawi's No. 1 priority in terms of foreign attacks, Bush said.
"Zarqawi welcomed this direction," Bush said. "He claimed that he had already come up with some good proposals."
Rabia was killed by a U.S. Predator strike in Pakistan in December 2005. Libbi was captured in May 2005 and taken into CIA custody. He is being held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bush addressed 228 graduates on a clear New England day as congressional leaders put the final touches on a compromise war-spending bill that would include only symbolic timetables for progress. Despite hardened opposition to the war, Bush argued against comparisons to Vietnam.
"There are many differences between the two conflicts, but one stands out above all," he said. "The enemy in Vietnam had neither the intent nor the capability to strike our homeland. The enemy in Iraq does."
Meyer reported from Florence, Italy, and Neuman from New London.