With the Senate about to debate an Iraq withdrawal plan this week, the White House released a summary of a new
National Intelligence Estimate saying Al Qaeda is still a major threat. Chicago Tribune correspondent Mark Silva says the timing was no accident.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Be afraid. Be very afraid. That's the message coming from the executive branch. Last week, there was Michael Chertoff's gut feeling that the homeland is vulnerable to terror attacks this summer, and this week, the White House released a summary of the latest National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE. It reported that al Qaeda has regrouped in Pakistan's tribal areas and is still the most serious threat to the United States.
And it invoked al Qaeda's namesake in Iraq, reminding us that that group was, quote, "known to have expressed a desire to attack the homeland." BOB GARFIELD: Critics pointed out that al Qaeda in Iraq is a product of the war there, and an independent entity. But the White House insists that the group is taking its marching orders from Osama. And, as if to drive the point home, the Pentagon announced the very next day that one of the group's leaders was in custody, and happened to be the liaison between Osama and the Iraqis.
All of that occurred against the backdrop of another failed attempt by Congressional Democrats to force a troop withdrawal, an attempt that featured the rolling out of cots for an all-night anti-filibuster session.
Chicago Tribute political reporter Mark Silva wrote that the timing of the NIE, quote, "follows a pattern of White House releases of select intelligence findings at critical junctures in the war debate."
MARK SILVA: A more direct way of saying it might be that when the news turns sour on the war, the intelligence reports come out. These are reports that are classified, the most secretive and considered work of the intelligence community, and it's not the sort of work that the administration is generally inclined to, you know, share with the public.
And so they produce edited versions of these reports at various times, and the report that came out most recently was about a page and a half of conclusions, which was only a slice of the real report.
But it's clearly aimed and timed at a time when the President is having trouble with the war. And, you know, this happened in February, when the President was looking for an escalation of troops in Iraq, and it happened in April of last year, when sectarian violence had gotten out of hand in Iraq and the President was looking to regain public confidence.
BOB GARFIELD: In the papers that I saw on Wednesday, when this stuff came out, there was what you can only describe as a pretty wide indictment of the administration and its kind of terrorism policies over the past six years. Surely the White House knew that when it decided to play the NIE card that it was exposing itself to all of this criticism. What do you suppose they had in mind? MARK SILVA: Well, I think this is a White House that has basically fielded all the criticism there is to field, and they're at a point where the President's own approval is very low, and they don't have much to lose. They do need to continue from their point of view some measure of public support, patience with the mission in Iraq.
And I think all of this was calculated much as the President's own press conference was calculated last week, to buy some time into September, the point at which, you know, American military commanders are supposed to give a new assessment of the progress in Iraq, and to remind people, once again, that, you know, from their point of view, Iraq is the central front in the war on terror.
Lee Hamilton of the Iraq Study Group says, well, not the central front, but a front, certainly. But this is the administration's message. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you mentioned that Iraq was not the only front in this war. Another one is in Pakistan in the tribal areas where apparently Osama bin Laden and much of the Taliban have taken refuge. General Pervez Musharraf has been frozen by his own domestic political situation, and raging Islamists, from being able to really deal with the al Qaeda threat there.
Was the President in some way sending a message to Musharraf that, you know, he better begin to deal with it or the U.S. will? MARK SILVA: Yeah, I think that's a message that's been being delivered for some time now. I actually traveled with Vice President Cheney some months back when he made a surprise visit to Pakistan. We dropped in on Musharraf in Islamabad. And the general consensus then was that Cheney was delivering the message that, you know, it's time to crack down here.
Cheney said afterwards that, you know, I don't put pressure on people. That's not the way I operate, which [LAUGHS] has a certain [BOB LAUGHS] disingenuity to it, just on the face of it. BOB GARFIELD: I'm from the federal government. I'm here to help. MARK SILVA: [LAUGHING] Right, but, no, I think there's been very clear and direct and personal attempts to get Musharraf to do something about the situation in his own country. While war critics or national security strategists who are outside the White House would tell you that when we took our eyes off the ball, so to speak, in Afghanistan, we really allowed another problem to fester, and that was the al Qaeda/Taliban alliance in Afghanistan and the region of Pakistan that you mentioned, and that it's become stronger. BOB GARFIELD: I want to get back to the question of manipulating public opinion. If it is true that the President was selectively quoting the National Intelligence Estimate for the purposes of selling the idea of staying the course in Iraq, it's equally true that the Democrats have lacked the votes to impose their will on the administration and have been using some P.R. tactics of their own.
What did you make of the all-nighter in [LAUGHS] the Senate, the debate on the idea of withdrawing forces from Iraq? MARK SILVA: Well, what I made of the all-nighter was that most of America slept while the Congress remained in session, which is sort of the opposite of the way things generally operate in Washington. If anybody thought they were going to change some votes with it, that certainly didn't happen, and I don't think that was the Democratic leadership's intention, anyway. I think it was to embarrass the Republicans for being obstacles to a change of war policy.
You know, Congress itself has reached another low in the polls. It was up or above 80 percent disapproval in a Zogby poll recently for Reuters. And, you know, by and large, the last midterm election was a repudiation of the war policy of the President. And the leaders, in attempting to muster, you know, public opposition to the Republicans as obstacles in this matter are almost playing a little bit of, you know, a desperation game, because they really can't pass a bill that the President won't veto. And that's the problem.
Until there's an overrideable majority in the House and Senate, the President's going to have his way with the war. BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Mark, thank you so much. MARK SILVA: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Mark Silva is a Washington correspondent for The Chicago Tribune.