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White House Press Briefing on National Intelligence Estimate

Aired September 27, 2006 - 11:49   ET


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: We are awaiting a White House briefing. There is White House Press Secretary Tony Snow.
Let's listen in.

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... intend to go on the offense in the war on terror?

The NIE mirrors statements that the president has made about the nature of the threat that we face and also I think vindicates many of the steps that have been taken and that were outlined in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, which we made available to you about a month ago.

Also, there's controversy about releasing the entire national intelligence estimate. Let me tell you why we're not going to do that.

First, the full text includes detailed information collected by human agents, technical means and also in cooperation with foreign governments, and to reveal that information would place at risk the lives of our agents and also human agents, as well as compromising our ability to work with foreign governments or, for that matter, to employ the means that we use -- we don't want them to understand our sources and methods. It also would compromise the independence of people doing intelligence analysis.

What you want are intelligence analysts who are going to be able to give you their free and full views of what the situation is. If they think that their work is constantly going to be released to the public, they're going to pull their punches. And that's the last thing you want to have happen.

As for what was released, Jane Harman said that it accurately reflected what was in the national intelligence estimate. And, as you know, Jane has been a critic in other areas.

But at least I think that ought to serve to note that we did not cherry-pick, or actually the director of national intelligence did not cherry pick conclusions. But instead, you've got an accurate reflection of what is within the text of the NIE itself.

In short, we're not going release the documents because we don't want to place people's lives at risk. We don't want to place sources and methods at risk. We don't want to compromise our ability to work with foreign governments who have been essential in helping prosecute and continue to prosecute the war on terror. And we want to make sure that the president receives the best and most honest analysis he can from intelligence sources.

So with that as my preamble, let's go to questions.

QUESTION: Can you address the comments of the House minority leader and Representative Harman saying that there is a second Iraq estimate out there that is in draft form that is being held until after the November elections?

SNOW: They're just flat wrong.

What happened is, about a month ago Director Negroponte informed the committees that he was, in fact, going to do an exhaustive on Iraq. That's a month ago.

These reviews take about a year to do. So the idea that it is in, quote, "draft form" -- they're just beginning to do their work on it. And Intelligence Committee members, if they don't know it, should.

But there is not a waiting Iraq document that reflects a national intelligence estimate that's sitting around gathering dust waiting till after the election.

QUESTION: The fact that they're talking about it being extremely grim -- how do you characterize it? Has the president been briefed on this yet?

SNOW: We don't brief somebody on a document that's just in the very early stages of composition. And that's what it is.

QUESTION: I want to revisit a bit of what we went over yesterday. Now that we have actually seen the key judgments, maybe we can ask a more profound question.

Why does the president continue to say that we're winning the war on terror and we are all safe when the overall picture painted by these key judgments is actually quite bleak and points to several areas where that is not a conclusion you could reach by reading it?

SNOW: I'm not sure I agree. I'm not sure I agree.

For instance, I know it's been characterized as being bleak. What it is is it's a snapshot, as of February 28th, of what was going on in the region.

Let me explain why the president thinks we're winning the war on terror, and also give a little bit of context to some of the statements that are made -- I've got the NIE text here -- because I think I know the areas that you might want some responses to.

The first thing is, let's start with the obvious. Since September 11th, 2001, we have not been attacked. And furthermore the United States, since September 11th, 2001, has taken a much more aggressive approach toward terror than it had taken previously.

Before September 11th, 2001, many people in the United States did not realize the nature of the enemy we were facing. In the previous administration, we had an attack on the World Trade Center, on Khobar Towers. We had attacks on both embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, an attack on the USS Cole.

Also, Osama bin Laden in February of 1998 made it clear that he not only intended to wage war on the United States, but he wanted to use Iraq as a central battleground. From his fatwa on February 23rd, 1998, he complained that, "For over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam and the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors and turning bases in the peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples."

The reason I read that is that it reflects part of the strategy of building jihadism, which is to foment hatred and to try to get people worked up in such a way that they may feel inclined to, quote, "join the jihad."

There were other statements about America's continuing aggression. He said, "The Americans aims behind these wars are religious and economic. The aim is to also to serve the Jews' petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and the murder of Muslims there."

He continues: "All these crimes and sins committed by the Americans are a clear declaration of war on God, his messenger and Muslims."

So he issued a fatwa, and here's part of what the fatwa said: "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies, civilians and military, is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it."

He later said, "We, with God's help, call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."

In short, there was a gathering threat. In those years, bin Laden noticed that the United States had, in fact, been cutting back dramatically on intelligence assets and on military assets. As a matter of fact, even with the buildup since September 11th, we are only now beginning to achieve the same sort of levels that we had in terms of intelligence assets that we had at the beginning of the Clinton administration.

Bin Laden also had drawn some comfort from the retreat of Americans from Somalia, which he cited as proof of the weakness of the American heart and therefore as a reason to inspire some of his colleagues to continue to wage jihad and to try to kill Americans. The fact is it was a dangerous world.

So what have we done since? And this is why the president says we're safer. Al Qaeda has been significantly degraded. It is one of the key conclusions, or at least the key judgments -- you don't have conclusions in a national intelligence estimate -- that, in fact, the operational structure had been weakened.

Furthermore, what the United States has done is not only go after al Qaeda, not only fight on the battlefield, but also to come up with an approach that tries to deny terrorists safe havens anywhere, including on the Internet where they try to share information; financially, going after their finances -- the SWIFT program; listening in on their conversations, where you have the terrorist surveillance program.

There have been cooperative and collaborative efforts with other governments. The United States in and of itself -- we're not fighting this battle alone but we're fighting it in conjunction with allies. So you have the Pakistanis and the Brits helping us out when it came to interrupting a terror plot that was foreseen to happen this year with planes flying...


... oh, my goodness -- planes flying from Heathrow to New York.

In short, what has happened in the war on terror is that you at one point had Osama bin Laden with the ability to control a country.

Before September 11th, what did you have? You had terrorists who had moved into Afghanistan, taking the country for their own. They had operational bases where they were able to train. They had the ability not only to have their people altogether but they had logistics, they could communicate with impunity around the globe, and they knew that nobody was going to be able to -- or they didn't think anybody was going to intercept what they were doing. They had an operational capability then that they do not have now.

When you have a dispersed terror threat -- and this is also in the NIE -- they tend to be less threatening, although let's make no mistake about it: They would like to become more threatening. But when you have organizations that are led by strong and charismatic leaders, when you have attacks on those or when you take care of a leader like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, what you do is you throw them into disarray.

So the terrorists today cannot sleep safe because they know we're listening to them, they know we're watching them, they know we're tracking their finances, and they know that we are not only trying to use whatever means in our power to go after them, but also in places like Iraq and elsewhere the locals are beginning to turn them in.

So it's a different -- you've got a different set of circumstances than you had on September 11th.

Think of it this way: If we had done nothing after September 11th, would the threat have vanished?

Based on what we know about bin Laden, who moved from Somalia to Afghanistan, had the advantage of a failed state from which to mount operations, when the United States wasn't looking, he trained tens of thousands of people, dispatched them around the globe, and set up the operational capability of pulling off a September 11th.

He no longer has that. And that is one of the ways in which it makes the world safer.

Now, does it mean that we put on rose-colored glasses and say there's no threat? Of course not. But it's a different kind of threat now. It is more numerous, because you have more people who are responding to jihadi propaganda.

But on the other hand, you do not have that concentrated capability to hit. And we are determined to continue to develop methods to strike them wherever they are so that they are not going to be able to regain those sorts of capabilities.

QUESTION: You said, first of all, that al Qaeda has been degraded. Actually, the report said Al Qaida's leadership has been degraded but that its ranks have increased.

You also...

SNOW: Operational -- OK.

QUESTION: ... go through here.

You also said that -- you're talking about things the administration has done, and yet the intelligence estimate is taking this into account in coming up with this conclusion that the factors fueling the growth of the movement that they report outweigh the vulnerabilities of the movement and will do so for some time.

That's not "We're safer."

SNOW: No, no. It talks about jihadism.

QUESTION: That not "We're winning."

SNOW: Well, it doesn't draw judgments like that. You've read national intelligence estimates.

QUESTION: I happen to be quoting verbatim.

SNOW: I know, but look for "We're not winning."

Please show me.


SNOW: No, the president says we're winning. But she said it says...

QUESTION: But the president...

SNOW: I understand that, and I've explained why he thinks...

QUESTION: But let's just read that sentence again. I mean, how can you translate that into "We're winning"? I just want to hear you make that argument.

SNOW: OK, well, let's go back through what you said.

For instance, one of the things that you mentioned is that it's degraded the leadership. Here's what it says: "The loss of key leaders -- particularly bin Laden, Zawahiri and Zarqawi in rapid succession -- probably would cause the group to fracture." We know at least one, if not two, of those are still alive.

But it says, "The loss of these leaders would exacerbate strains and disagreements. We assess that the resulting splinter groups, at least for a time, pose a less serious threat to U.S. interests than does al Qaeda."

When it comes to degradation, when you talk about degrading the leadership of al Qaeda, you have degraded the operational capability.

Once again, you don't have training camps. You do not have the ability to train and to carry off operations like you did before. You don't have the freedom of communication they had before. You do not have the freedom of motion they had before.

So the degradation is a degradation of capability.

It says that al Qaeda remains the most dangerous or the most threatening, I think, of the terror groups. Absolutely.

But what you're talking about here -- and this is an important distinction to make between jihadis and those who are operationally capable of devastating strikes on the United States and other governments.

You simply do not have that kind of concentrated operational capability that you had before. And that does come through here.

Now, what is going on? They're looking for excuses. As a matter of fact, Ayman al-Zawahiri today is going to issue another tape that is -- at least we are told -- that is going to try to get people wamped up in this case, I think, about the pope, about Darfur -- because apparently we're trying to save people in Darfur -- and the Danish cartoons.

So the fact is there are a number of ways of recruiting and incitement. And incitement is something that typically would happen.

Every time there's an American victory, they will go and say, "Ah-ha! Here they have killed Zarqawi. Join the movement."

Just because somebody says they've joined the movement does not necessarily mean that they are prepared to strap on a vest and blow somebody up. So that's the distinction to make.

QUESTION: Well again, the report says, "Factors fueling the movement outweigh the vulnerabilities." It says that the movement has grown and that it's harder to find and harder to prevent attacks.

SNOW: I believe what it says. You've gotten it about right.

QUESTION: And they're training new leaders who are being battle- tested in Iraq.

SNOW: No, let's run through it. These are all good questions.

First, it says -- when you talk about -- I'm sorry -- rephrase the one that you're going after here.



QUESTION: We're also talking about harder -- you know, "the confluence of shared purpose and dispersed actors will make it harder to find and undermine jihadist groups."

SNOW: Right. Which is precisely why the president has said -- if you look back at what the president's been saying, he says its numerous and more dispersed. We're not disagreeing with that. I'm not trying to pick a fight with it.

What I'm trying to tell you is, there's a difference between an al Qaeda that has training camps, that has the operational ability.

What this is talking about is the ability to get people to say, "I'm a jihadist," and to be angry, to identify themselves as part of the movement. It's not the same.

QUESTION: Tony, he says, "We're winning the war on terrorism." That's what he says.

SNOW: I know.

QUESTION: And there are more of them, they're more dispersed, they're harder to find, and yet the president is saying, "We're winning the war on terrorism."

SNOW: That's right. But we're also fighting the war on terrorism.

See, I think what's -- it is typical in a time like this for people to try and go ahead and gain adherents. The question is, are they going to win?

And the more important factor is -- and this is the key -- that the Iraq conflict has become the center of it all for these guys.


You'd followed up, I'm going to finish the answer and then you can hit back. "Should jihadists leaving Iraq receive themselves and be perceived to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight."

Fact is, they see Iraq -- it's described here as a cause celebre. And so what is going on right now is that there is a propaganda effort to get people wamped up. And if there's a perception that we're losing in Iraq, that's going to get more people to identify themselves as a jihadist.

The question, again -- the operational question -- and it's not answered in here because I'm not sure it's answerable -- is are there more cells that are operationally capable of killing us or do you have more people who say, "We hate the United States"?

QUESTION: Look at Iraq.

SNOW: Yes, we are looking at Iraq and that's...

QUESTION: They're fully capable of killing in great numbers there.

SNOW: That's right.

QUESTION: And you've got...

SNOW: And who are they killing?

QUESTION: They're killing Iraqis, they're killing Americans, they're killing civilians, they're killing military.

SNOW: That's right. But you're mixing apples and oranges here, so let me go through it.

When you're talking about Iraq...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) that's the central front on terrorism.

SNOW: Yes. And that's why, in fact, we're trying to fight it, and we are fighting it, and we're going to win it.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) make it go away when Zarqawi was killed, which...

SNOW: No, I don't think you just fell off the turnip truck. You understand that as a matter of fact what happens is that there are a number of jihadis united by an ideology that they do want to kill us. I mean, that's not a surprise. As a matter of fact, it is typical for an embattled organization to do this.

Look, let me ask you a simple question: You think bin Laden's better off today than he was six years ago?



QUESTION: But I don't know that.

SNOW: All right.

QUESTION: I have no idea. SNOW: Do you think Zawahiri is better off than he was six years ago?

QUESTION: Let's ask you the questions.

Let me go to something else, the strategy overall.

You talk about aggressive stances. You talk about going after these guys. What's happened with doing that is they've dispersed and they're harder to find. So what, if any, is a new approach to that? How do you adapt to that kind of approach?

SNOW: Did you read this?

QUESTION: Yes, I did read that.

SNOW: OK. Well, then, we'll walk through it.

QUESTION: But what have we done, and have we done enough to go to the root of the problem? The president talks about that all the time and yet they're dispersing, spreading, growing.

SNOW: Well, again, dispersing, spreading and growing, you still have to ask yourself, do you have the operational capability or are these people who, in fact, are going to be -- there are a couple of other conclusions in here -- I know I'm jumping around, let me back up -- conclusions in here that also bear upon your question.

For instance, let's look at the underlying grievances. "Entrenched grievances such as corruption, injustice and fear of Western domination, slow pace of real sustained economic, social and political reforms. Also pervasive anti-U.S. sentiment among Muslims."

What it also concludes is that "The possibility of democracy is going to have a significant discouraging effect." That is one thing.

Secondly, when you take a look at what we've been doing, in terms of discouraging, you not only have battlefield operations; you have military operations, you have intelligence operations.

But also there are a number of ongoing efforts to try to create conditions where you do address underlying causes, where you do address the kind of discontent that has been simmering in the region for a very long time.

Let me remind you, it did not begin with the Iraq war. It, in fact, had grown in enormous strength before the Iraq war. It would not have gone away with or without the Iraq war.

The fact is, we have a problem that we are trying to deal with on many fronts. And we can walk through all the steps. You know, I mean, I can go back through the conclusions here.

QUESTION: (inaudible) lessons learned, maybe, from Iraq. You're fighting an insurgency in Iraq.

What is your strategy for fighting an insurgency?

And what lessons can you learn from that? Maybe, every time you strike one insurgent, you get 10 more -- whatever those lessons are that you've learned there, how are you applying those to, if you...

SNOW: Again, if you take a look at the insurgency: Challenges -- this is from the counter-terrorism document. "Terrorist networks are more dispersed and more centralized, more reliant on smaller cells inspired by common ideology."

What have we done? We interrupted their communications. We interrupted their finances. We interrupted their operational capabilities. And you continue to do things like that. You make it more difficult for them to operate morning, noon and night.

At the same time, you understand that there is a violent ideology which you not only have to fight with arms and intelligence and cooperation with others, but you also have to work on ways to make what they do less attractive to people around them. And that has also worked.

As you know, a number of the strikes that have been going on in Iraq for the last couple of years are a result of people who in the past may have been afraid of standing up to terrorists providing actionable intelligence. And that has gone from a small trickle to thousands of intelligence leads each and every month that have, in fact, led to significant operations within the area.

There is no question that these people are trying to fight in Iraq. There is no question that they're going to try to use the images of gore as a way of planting fear in people's hearts.

But there's also no question -- and this gets back to the fundamental issue -- are you going to go on the offensive against them or not?

What this is is a snapshot of the people the president has been describing for the last month. They're committed, they're violent, they're dispersed and we can beat them.

Now, if the question is, we can't beat them and we shouldn't fight, that's a debate we can have in the United States. That's a debate we can have in Congress.

The answer the president has is, you don't back off. You put them on the run. You win in Iraq. You establish democracy. And then they are going to know that there's just no way they can win.

QUESTION: Let me focus for a second. Because when this story broke, it seemed to me that the question here was whether or not the NIE, at least according to the part that was leaked, suggested that the war in Iraq, as a part of the general war on terror, was creating more terrorists, not fewer.

And it seemed as though the administration's first response has to do with how the information came out or that it was a small part. Do you have an issue with that statement?

SNOW: Yes. As a matter of fact, I called you and took issue with it, because there's a difference between causation and something that's simply -- two phenomena that happened to be going side by side.

QUESTION: And this reading of the report?

SNOW: The report does not say that Iraq is -- it says that Iraq jihad is a contributing factor in trying to recruit people to jihad.

It doesn't say that Iraq has made terrorism worse, and that is the shorthand that was employed in the number of cases.

QUESTION: I'm sorry. Spell out the difference for me.

SNOW: Real simple. Number one. First, here it is.

No, I'd be happy to read the sentence, I'll do it for everybody because there are two parts to it, and only the first half was leaked.

"The Iraq conflict has become a cause celebre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world, and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement." Correct? Supporters. That's right.

People say -- this is what we're talking about. We're talking about supporters of a global jihadist movement. What it doesn't say is, "We now have tens of thousands or more people armed and ready to hit the United States." It doesn't say that.

It says that they're creating an atmosphere where people are identifying themselves as jihadists.

Now, here's the second part. "Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves and be perceived to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight."

This is the -- the critical judgment here is Iraq has become, for them, the battleground. If they lose, they lose their bragging rights. They lose their ability to recruit.

And that is why, at this point -- the president has made the point over and over. He's not tried to say there are fewer. He's not tried to say that they haven't been winning propaganda victories.

What he has said is we've got a different kind of enemy and we've kept America safe and we'll continue to do it.

QUESTION: But it seems to me that what is being suggested here -- maybe the question is how do define "jihad"? And is it the same thing -- is their "jihad" our "war in Iraq." And maybe we're having a problem with terms.

But it seems to me that what is being suggested here is that what is going on in Iraq -- that conflict -- is creating more jihadists? Terrorists? I'm not sure what term...

SNOW: You know what's being used? What's it's doing is it's trying -- and let me see if I can find the bin Laden quote here.

What bin Laden tries to do is to use events as a way of stirring up hatred so that he can get people who will identify -- who will support him.

COLLINS: We are listening in to White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and the press go over and over and over some of the key judgments that were released in that national intelligence estimate report that we've been talking about for the last couple of days, really trying to get down to the nitty-gritty and the verbiage and exactly what it means with reference to whether or not the Iraq war is inciting more violence and a stronger jihadist movement.

TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: This is going to be so deeply parsed out before it's all said and done.

A couple of notes.

Yes, we expected some conversation on this, we expected some questions. But of course Tony Snow had some other issues, and probably we will get to other issues, including the president's meeting tonight.

But if you want to follow the rest of this news conference, you can. Just go to You can hear the rest of this news conference with Press Secretary Tony Snow.

COLLINS: Right. And once again, that meeting that you see on your screen, 7:50 tonight between these three leaders: Karzai, Musharraf and Bush. The president will address the public at 7:20. Look for this at 7:50.

Have a great day, everybody.




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