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Bush Describes Thwarted Al-Qaida Attacks


With his approval ratings at historic lows and opposition from Congress running high, President Bush today delivered a speech designed to rally support for his strategy in Iraq. The president cited newly declassified intelligence that he says backs his view that U.S. troops should stay in Iraq to keep the country from becoming a terrorist launching pad.

Here's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: President Bush has a few favorite lines when he talks to people about Iraq. It's the rare speech where you don't hear this one.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We must fight the terrorists where they live so that we don't have to fight them where we live.

KELLY: That's President Bush delivering the commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy today. He also used this favorite.

Pres. BUSH: If we fail in Iraq, the enemy will follow us home.

KELLY: Today, though, the president altered his routine and said he wanted to share newly declassified information to support that last point.

Pres. BUSH: According to our intelligence community in January 2005, Osama bin Laden tasked the terrorist Zarkawi, who is then al-Qaida's top leader in Iraq, with forming a cell to conduct terrorist attacks outside of Iraq, bin Laden emphasized that America should be Zarkawi's number one priority.

KELLY: We should note that this has been public knowledge since early 2005. The White House says it's now able to talk about the incident in somewhat greater detail. Today, President Bush also describes several post-9/11 plots that have apparently been foiled. They include a plan to fly a plane into the Library Tower in L.A. and a separate aviation attack allegedly targeting the East Coast.

Again the broad outlines of these were already public. But President Bush argues the real point here is that al-Qaida wants to strike the U.S. again, and that preventing that is integrally linked to the conflict in Iraq.

President BUSH: Al-Qaida is public enemy number one for Iraq's young democracy. Al-Qaida is public enemy number one for America as well. And that is why we must support our troops. We must support the Iraqi government and we must defeat al-Qaida in Iraq.

(Soundbite of applause)

KELLY: Robert Hutchins believes this is a seriously flawed view of the situation in Iraq and of the broader war on terror. Hutchins is a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, now at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He says it's just not the case that al—Qaida is enemy number one in Iraq.

Mr. ROBERT HUTCHINS (Former Chairman, National Intelligence Council): Of course, al-Qaida is manipulating the situation. It's benefiting from it. But the real source of conflict there is the sectarian violence, which we have helped ignite.

KELLY: Another skeptic, former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, is suspicious of the intelligence the president presented about foiled plots and secret al-Qaida communications. Clarke has served in several administrations. He says this one has, quote, "taken the selective release of intelligence to a new level."

Mr. RICHARD CLARKE (Former White House Counterterrorism Chief): The problem is you don't know what they're not releasing. There's always intelligence that says the opposite to whatever you're saying, because there's so much information in the system. And if you don't see all of that, and you only see the little pieces that they cherry pick and release to support their case, you have no way of judging how credible it is.

KELLY: Clarke believes the declassified intelligence and the president's speech were timed for political advantage as he battles Congress over funding for the war in Iraq. White House adviser Fran Townsend dismisses that suggestion. She told reporters today if political advantage was the name of the game, we would have gotten it out a lot sooner.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.