Cherry-picking intelligence in post-Bush era
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.