MELISSA BLOCK, host:
For more detail on what is in the document and how it's likely to play out politically, we're joined by NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. Welcome.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Thank you, Melissa.
BLOCK: Mary Louise, we just heard in Don Gonyea's report there that the White House is saying that this intelligence estimate underscores, backs up what they've been saying all along. Democrats though are also saying that it proves their points about how it's time to change course in Iraq.
From your reading, from the people you've talked to, who's right here?
KELLY: I think it goes to that old saying that you can find a statistic to prove any argument. I think you can quote a sentence or two of this document and find that you can prove either of those points of view. So to that end, yes, we're hearing the president and his aides cite passages about Iraq. The judgment that Iraq has become a cause celebre for jihadists and that abandoning Iraq would hand those jihadists a victory.
The president's camp says that underscores what they have been saying all along, that Iraq is central to the war on terror and that the U.S. needs to stay the course.
Democrats read this differently. Democrats are citing that same line about Iraq become a cause celeb for jihadists and they say this bolsters our view that invading Iraq was a huge mistake, that the war in Iraq overall has made Americans less safe.
BLOCK: Can you find language in this NIE that would back up the view that the president has stated many times, which is that the U.S. is winning the war on terror and that Americans are in fact safer now than they were before?
KELLY: Well, I think we bear in mind that this report is written as a neutral intelligence assessment, so it's not designed to answer those questions neatly. But my reading overall, this paints a bleak picture. I think the single most important sentence, we may look back and view it as being, and I'll quote here, “we assess that the underlying factors fueling the spread of the movement outweigh its vulnerabilities.” In other words, the terrorist movement is likely to grow more quickly than the West's ability to counter it.
You know, clearly there are some relatively positive points. The report cites counterterrorism efforts have, and I'll quote, “seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qaida and disrupted its operations.” But overall I think it would be hard to read this document and walk away thinking the U.S. is winning the war on terror.
BLOCK: There is, though, language in this document that would seem to support the president's argument that the U.S. should stay the course in Iraq, as the administration puts it. There's language that says if terrorists think they have won in Iraq that that would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere.
KELLY: Right. And the White House has singled out that line that you just quoted. There's another passage later on that makes a similar point in a different way. It says, “should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves and be perceived to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight.” So again, yes. These are lines that the White House is arguing supports its position in terms of staying the course, that the original decision to invade Iraq was the correct one.
BLOCK: There's also speculation in this report on the impact of the killing or capture of certain terrorist leaders, Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in New York and this report was done in April and since then, of course, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed. Have the reports predictions come to pass since that killing?
KELLY: Yeah, it's a good point. The report actually writes about a specific scenario, the loss of key leaders in quick succession, and it judges that that would cause the broader movement to fracture and that the resulting splinter groups might for awhile at least pose a lesser threat to the U.S. We clearly haven't seen the exact scenario described there unfold, of course, of losing key leaders in rapid succession.
You know in terms of what we can say about the impact of Zarqawi's death, his group has continued to carry out vicious attacks. Most notably a few weeks ago we had the murder and mutilation of two U.S. soldiers south of Baghdad and Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for that.
On the other hand, there are growing indications that some Iraqi tribal leaders may be fighting back and saying we won't support you. Overall in Iraq, we saw very high levels of violence this summer and fall, but that's not necessarily the work of Zarqawi's group.
BLOCK: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. Thanks very much.
KELLY: You're welcome.
BLOCK: You can read the declassified findings of the National Intelligence Estimate report at our Web site, NPR.org.