President Bush said Wednesday American intelligence had shown that as late as 2005, al-Qaida was planning new attacks outside Iraq that were thwarted by the timely capture of key leaders of the terrorist group.
Speaking to graduating cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., Mr. Bush revealed bits of newly declassified intelligence indicating, among other things, that Osama bin Laden sought to defeat coalition forces in Iraq so that it could be used as a base to subvert moderate governments in the Middle East.
The president said bin Laden had characterized the battle for Iraq as a "war of destiny" that must be won at all costs.
Presenting a litany of U.S. intelligence successes in recent years, Mr. Bush acknowledged the war in Iraq was "tough" and said the terrorists "only have to be right once; to protect our country, we have to be right 100 percent of the time."
Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser, said new details about the plots were declassified because the intelligence community has tracked all leads from the information, and that the players were either dead or in U.S. custody.
However, much of the information the president cited described terrorism plots already revealed, but he fleshed out details and highlighted U.S. successes in foiling planned attacks.
Critics also questioned the president's interpretation of the intelligence information.
He said that intelligence showed that in January 2005, bin Laden told Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his senior operative in Iraq, to set up the cell to use Iraq as a staging ground for attacks in the United States. Zarqawi was killed in Iraq in June 2006 by a U.S. airstrike.
The information expanded on a classified bulletin the Homeland Security Department issued in March 2005. The bulletin, which warned that bin Laden had enlisted Zarqawi to plan potential strikes in the United States, was described at the time as credible but not specific.
Mr. Bush said that in the spring of 2005, bin Laden instructed Hamza Rabia, a senior operative, to brief Zarqawi on an al-Qaida plan to attack sites outside Iraq. Around the same time, Abu Fajah al-Libi, a senior al-Qaida manager, suggested that bin Laden send Rabia to Iraq to help Zarqawi plan the external operations, he said. It is unclear whether Rabia, who was later killed, went to Iraq.
Mr. Bush also talked about a 2003 aviation plot led by another suspected senior al-Qaida operative named Abu Bakr al-Azdi.
But Robert Hutchings, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, said the president was conveniently avoiding the real issue.
"Of course al-Qaida is manipulating the situation there, is benefiting from it, but the real source of the conflict is the sectarian violence, which we have helped ignite," Hutchings told NPR.
A former White House counter-terrorism adviser, Richard Clark, said it is impossible to see the whole picture from just a few pieces of selectively released intelligence.
"The problem is that you don't know what they're not releasing," he said. "If 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."
Written by Scott Neuman with reporting from NPR's Mary Louise Kelly and the Associated Press.