Cherry-pick­ing in­tel­li­gence in post-Bush era

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

Al Qaeda is be­com­ing the weapon of mass de­struc­tion (WMD) of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Afghan war. Or, to be more pre­cise, it is a re­verse WMD.

For the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, the likely pres­ence of WMD in Iraq was a ma­jor jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for go­ing to war. For Vice Pres­i­dent Joseph R. Bi­den Jr. and some se­nior Obama White House staff (we do not yet know the po­si­tion of the pres­i­dent), the pur­ported weak­ness and in­ef­fec­tive­ness of al Qaeda is suf­fi­cient jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for end­ing our ma­jor ground troop pres­ence in Afghanistan.

More­over, just as with dis­cus­sions of WMD in 2002-03, the cur­rent dis­cus­sion of al Qaeda’s ca­pac­i­ties in Afghanistan is be­ing car­ried out with cherry-picked in­tel­li­gence. And, just as Mr. Bush’s op­po­nents sus­pected, he cited WMD merely as an ex­cuse for start­ing a war he had al­ready made up his mind to start for dif­fer­ent rea­sons; so it would ap­pear that the as­ser­tion of al Qaeda weak­ness by the White House might merely be an ex­cuse to jus­tify the po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion that has al­ready been made (by some) to get out of Afghanistan.

In Septem­ber, the pres­i­dent pub­licly ex­pressed doubts con­cern­ing the wis­dom of his own strat­egy. Then Gen. Stan­ley A. McChrys­tal’s war plans were leaked to The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Bob Wood­ward. The Post then ed­i­to­ri­al­ized harshly against the pres­i­dent’s in­de­ci­sion and re­minded him of his re­cent words con­cern­ing Afghanistan be­ing a nec­es­sary war.

The White House then in­for­mally re­leased the Bi­den plan, which would draw down ground troops and go af­ter al Qaeda pri­mar­ily by air. Gen. McChrys­tal pub­licly re­pu­di­ated the ef­fi­cacy of the Bi­den plan and, while on CBS’ “60 Min­utes,” men­tioned that he had talked with the pres­i­dent only once since tak­ing com­mand — and then by phone.

Then, on Sept. 30, The Post ran a spec­tac­u­lar front-page, above-the-fold lead story head­lined “Suc­cess Against al-Qaeda Cited: In­fil­tra­tion of Net­work Is a Fac­tor as Ad­min­is­tra­tion De­bates Afghanistan Pol­icy.” This ar­ti­cle, leaked to The Post by “se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials, who spoke about in­tel­li­gence mat­ters on the con­di­tion of anonymity,” ex­pressly ar­gued that al Qaeda had been pen­e­trated re­cently by our spies and other in­tel­li­gence, can be hit by drones, and there­fore “such im­proved coun­tert­er­ror­ism ef­fort” is “ev­i­dence that Obama’s prin­ci­pal ob­jec­tive — de­stroy­ing al Qaeda — can be achieved without an ex­panded troop pres­ence.”

The White House-fed ar­ti­cle went on to quote Richard Bar­rett, head of the United Na­tions’ al Qaeda and Tal­iban mon­i­tor­ing group and for­mer chief of Bri­tain’s over­seas coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions, to the ef­fect that “al Qaeda is ‘los­ing cred­i­bil­ity’ among po­ten­tial sup­port­ers and re­cruits be­cause its re­cent ef­forts ‘have not awed peo­ple’ and are ‘not up to the stan­dard of 9/11.’ As the years have passed since the 2001 at­tacks, he was quoted, al-Qaeda ‘hasn’t re­ally made a con­nec­tion to a new gen­er­a­tion’ of young Mus­lims who have lit­tle rec­ol­lec­tion of the events and are less in­ter­ested in re­li­gion. In terms of West­ern ef­forts, he said, the threat has di­min­ished.”

In other words, ac­cord­ing to se­nior White House of­fi­cials (through The Post ar­ti­cle), with al Qaeda com­pro­mised and man­age­able from the air — and with the Tal­iban hav­ing been a con­cern only if it em­pow­ered al Qaeda — Pres­i­dent Obama’s for­mer strat­egy of deny­ing the Tal­iban in­flu­ence or con­trol in Afghanistan is no longer needed. Nor do we need the gen­eral’s an­tic­i­pated re­quest of 40,000 more troops. Mis­sion ac- com­plished — let’s go home.

The next day, the Pen­tagon re­sponded through Jake Tap­per’s blog at ABC, ar­gu­ing that those suc­cesses were “largely be­cause of bet­ter in­tel­li­gence, stem­ming from greater co­op­er­a­tion by the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment and a stronger U.S. counter-in­sur­gency pro­gram on the other side of the bor­der in Afghanistan. That added pres­sure cre­ates the con­di­tions for bet­ter in­tel­li­gence on the ground as to where Tal­iban and al Qaeda forces are, sources say.

“They’re squeezed,” a Pen­tagon source says of in­di­vid­u­als on the bor­der re­gion. “And when peo­ple are squeezed, they talk.”

But mil­i­tary of­fi­cials who sup­port Gen. McChrys­tal’s pro­posal for a larger coun­terin­sur­gency strat­egy in Afghanistan are con­cerned that some in the White House in­ter­pret this suc­cess as a rea­son to fo­cus en­tirely on coun­tert­er­ror­ism us­ing drones.”

Not only are the quoted White House se­nior leak­ers mis­con­stru­ing the rea­sons for the suc­cesses we have had, but The Post’s ar­ti­cle cher­ryp­icked even the anal­y­sis of their ma­jor on-the-record source, Richard Bar­rett, whom the ar­ti­cle quoted to the com­fort­ing ef­fect that al Qaeda’s threat has “di­min­ished.” But Mr. Bar­rett also had re­cently told the Lon­don Sun­day Tele­graph of al Qaeda’s new meth­ods of hid­ing bombs (in the anus of the bomber), “While not want­ing to be alarmist, I ad­mit this is alarm­ing.

“Even though its ca­pa­bil­ity is re­duced, it is clear that al Qaeda re­mains de­ter­mined enough and in­ven­tive enough to cause an­other ter­ror­ist spec­tac­u­lar. Mr. Bar­rett said the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s power to sow ter­ror was far from elim­i­nated.”

Nor, re­gard­ing al Qaeda’s pur­ported in­abil­ity to reach young Mus­lims any­more, was The Post re­porter di­rected by the White House leak­ers to FBI Di­rec­tor Robert Mueller’s tes­ti­mony two weeks ago that al Qaeda in So­ma­lia was hav­ing great suc­cess with “al-Shabaab, which trans­lates as “mu­jahideen youth.” “They could strike the United States,” the FBI di­rec­tor tes­ti­fied.

We must trust that the pres­i­dent will not per­mit him­self to be mis­led by some of his most se­nior aides who clearly are try­ing to cherry-pick the in­tel­li­gence to gain their po­lit­i­cal ob­jec­tives — rather than hon­estly as­sess the in­tel­li­gence on be­half of our na­tional se­cu­rity needs.

Tony Blank­ley is the au­thor of “Amer­i­can Grit: What It Will Take to Sur­vive and Win in the 21st Cen­tury” and vice pres­i­dent of the Edel­man pub­lic-re­la­tions firm in Wash­ing­ton.

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