Politics of intelligence leaks and how to counter

Robert Kagan:

It's too bad we won't get to see the full National Intelligence Estimate on "Trends in Global Terrorism" selectively leaked to The Post and the New York Times last week. The Times headline read "Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terrorism Threat." But there were no quotations from the NIE itself, so all we have are journalists' characterizations of anonymous comments by government officials, whose motives and reliability we can't judge, about intelligence assessments whose logic and argument, as well as factual basis, we have no way of knowing or gauging. Based on the press coverage alone, the NIE's judgment seems both impressionistic and imprecise. On such an important topic, it would be nice to have answers to a few questions.

For instance, what specifically does it mean to say that the Iraq war has worsened the "terrorism threat"? Presumably, the NIE's authors would admit that this is speculation rather than a statement of fact, since the facts suggest otherwise. Before the Iraq war, the United States suffered a series of terrorist attacks: the bombing and destruction of two American embassies in East Africa in 1998, the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since the Iraq war started, there have not been any successful terrorist attacks against the United States. That doesn't mean the threat has diminished because of the Iraq war, but it does place the burden of proof on those who argue that it has increased.

Probably what the NIE's authors mean is not that the Iraq war has increased the actual threat. According to the Times, the report is agnostic on whether another terrorist attack is more or less likely. Rather, its authors claim that the war has increased the number of potential terrorists. Unfortunately, neither The Post nor the Times provides any figures to support this. Does the NIE? Or are its authors simply assuming that because Muslims have been angered by the war, some percentage of them must be joining the ranks of terrorists?

As a poor substitute for actual figures, The Post notes that, according to the NIE, members of terrorist cells post messages on their Web sites depicting the Iraq war as "a Western attempt to conquer Islam." No doubt they do. But to move from that observation to the conclusion that the Iraq war has increased the terrorist threat requires answering a few additional questions: How many new terrorists are there? How many of the new terrorists became terrorists because they read the messages on the Web sites? And of those, how many were motivated by the Iraq war as opposed to, say, the war in Afghanistan, or the Danish cartoons, or the Israel-Palestine conflict, or their dislike for the Saudi royal family or Hosni Mubarak, or, more recently, the comments of the pope? Perhaps our intelligence agencies have discovered a way to examine, measure and then rank the motives that drive people to become terrorists, though I tend to doubt it. But any serious and useful assessment of the effect of the Iraq war would, at a minimum, try to isolate the effect of the war from everything else that is and has been going on to stir Muslim anger. Did the NIE attempt to make that calculation?

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Then there is the inconvient fact that direct attacks on the US have been thwarted since 9-11. Al Qaeda has gone from hitting the US with terrorist attacks every couple of years to a five plus year lull. Even in Iraq, direct attacks on US forces have been falling as the enemy focuses on attacks on Iraqi non combatants.

Unfortunately what has not decreased are politically motivated intelligence leanks from those who want to lose the war in Iraq and damage the administration in the upcoming elections. This latest leak may require the release of further information about the NIE in order to put the facts in perspective. This will in turn give our enemies more information about what we know. This illegal leaker may get away with his felony in the meantime.

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