Undercutting new assertions by President Bush, a top U.S. intelligence official testified Wednesday that Al Qaeda’s organization in Iraq is overwhelmingly composed of fighters from that country, and that the terrorist network’s ability to operate in Pakistan poses the greater danger to the United States.
The testimony came just one day after Bush forcefully argued that Al Qaeda in Iraq is substantially controlled by foreign operatives, and that most of them would be trying to kill Americans if not for the ongoing war there.
The competing characterizations of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq -- and the extent to which the issue dominated a congressional hearing Wednesday -- again underscored the role of intelligence assessments in shaping the political debate over the war.
Testifying before the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees, Edward Gistaro, the nation’s top analyst for transnational threats, said the U.S. intelligence community’s “primary concern” is Al Qaeda in South Asia, which he said is “organizing its own plots” against the United States.
Gistaro, who was the principal author of a recent national intelligence study on threats to America, noted that Al Qaeda in Iraq -- or “AQI” as the group is known in U.S. intelligence circles -- has “expressed an interest” in launching attacks against the United States.
But he said that 90% of its members are Iraqis who joined Al Qaeda’s organization there following the U.S. invasion. He estimated the group’s strength at “several thousand” members and said “the bulk of AQI’s resources are focused on the battle inside of Iraq.”
Wednesday’s hearing took place at a time of increasingly heated debate over the rationale for the continuing conflict and the potential consequences of a U.S. military withdrawal.
Seeking to shore up flagging public support for the war and a recent “surge” of extra troops, the White House has sought to cast the conflict as a fight against Al Qaeda. In recent weeks, Bush has repeatedly drawn connections between the Al Qaeda organization in Iraq and the core of the terrorist network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
He has also ratcheted up his argument that pulling out U.S. troops would lead not only to chaos in the country he sought to remake as a democracy but also to a heightened risk of terrorist attacks inside U.S. borders.
That case has been complicated, however, by a National Intelligence Estimate warning that the war in Iraq has become a “cause celebre” for Islamic extremism around the world, even while Osama bin Laden and other leaders have used their haven in Pakistan to reassert control over the broader organization.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the latest assessments made clear that “the Al Qaeda threat emanates from Afghanistan and Pakistan and not Iraq, and that the United States has missed critical opportunities to address that threat.”
Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the panel, shot back that critics of the Bush administration “have ignored or misrepresented” recent intelligence reports for political purposes. He added that “Bin Laden’s view of the importance of Iraq has never wavered, nor his desire to attack us again on our soil.”
The exchange accentuated the degree to which the latest intelligence reports are open to interpretation, and in many ways provide ammunition to both sides. Indeed, some of Wednesday’s testimony amounted to an endorsement of Bush’s decision earlier this year to expand the U.S. commitment in Iraq.
Asked about recent reports that some Sunni tribal leaders have turned against the Al Qaeda affiliate in certain provinces of Iraq, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence James Clapper said: “I think it reflects the effect of our sustaining the attacks on the offensive against AQI. And more specifically, I think it is a reflection of the effectiveness of the surge.”
Clapper, who is the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, also said that the United States had continued to press Pakistan to put greater pressure on Al Qaeda in the tribal areas where Bin Laden was believed to be hiding. Clapper said the United States had provided Pakistani frontier forces helicopters, night vision goggles, and other equipment and training “to help them better observe what’s going on and then take appropriate action.”
Asked whether the United States would depend on Pakistan to strike Al Qaeda if new intelligence pinpointed the location of Bin Laden or other terrorist leaders, Clapper said the United States was positioned with special forces and other capabilities to strike on its own if necessary.
Wednesday’s testimony offered new insights into the U.S. intelligence community’s efforts to track Bin Laden’s movements in Pakistan.
Gistaro said the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan flushed much of Al Qaeda’s presence there into urban areas in Pakistan.
“Working with the Pakistanis, we pushed them out of the urban areas,” first into South Waziristan, and then into North Waziristan, a remote and rugged territory along the Afghanistan border.
“They used that safe haven to regenerate the operational leadership that is involved in developing and executing external operations,” Gistaro said. “We see their operational tempo of bringing people in to train for western operations picking up.”
A key factor was Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s decision last year to strike a peace deal with tribal leaders and reduce military operations in the area.
That truce has recently broken down, leading to new skirmishes.
Separately, Army Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, the commander of U.S. troops in the eastern Afghan provinces that border Pakistan, said he had seen signs that Al Qaeda-linked foreign fighters were transferring skills developed in Iraq to the Afghan campaign.
Rodriguez, speaking by videoconference to reporters at the Pentagon, added that the number of foreign fighters in eastern Afghanistan had increased 50% to 60% over the last year, which had been accompanied by a doubling of the number of cross-border attacks from Pakistan.
Times staff writer Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.