NEW LONDON, Conn. – President Bush on Wednesday sought to bolster his argument that terrorism in Iraq poses a threat to the U.S., offering details from previously classified intelligence to underscore his warning that the war was at a “pivotal moment.”
The 2-year-old information, declassified by the White House a day earlier, provided new information about what Bush described as orders from Osama bin Laden to a key ally in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to develop plans for terrorist strikes in other countries, including the United States.
Bush outlined the intelligence in a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy here, drawing criticism from opponents over his practice of divulging national security secrets to back his case for the war. “I’ve often warned our fellow citizens that if we fail in Iraq, the enemy will follow us home. And they ask, how do you know? Today, I’d like to share some information with you that attests to al-Qaida’s intentions,” Bush told the graduating cadets.
He went on to list a series of plots, all previously described by U.S. authorities, and offered what he said was new information about the bin Laden directive to al-Zarqawi. But several lawmakers and counterterrorism officials said they knew of no instances in which al-Zarqawi-led operatives had succeeded in entering the United States.
“I’ve learned to be a little bit skeptical of the initial comments of the president on these things,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s terrorism sub-panel. “As the information comes out, we’ll have to drill down to learn more about the specific threat – whether there was anything to it, if there are any specifics.”
Some of the president’s critics Wednesday cited what they consider a misguided effort to link the war in Iraq with the broader counterterrorism campaign.
Frances Townsend, the administration’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One before the address Wednesday that the administration waited to make sure it had “gotten through all the leads” and that releasing the information would not compromise the usefulness of the intelligence.
“Frankly, if political advantage was the name of the game, we would have gotten it a lot sooner,” she said.