WASHINGTON – National Intelligence Director John Negroponte acknowledged Monday that the jihad in Iraq is shaping a new generation of terrorist operatives, but rejected characterizations stemming from a leaked intelligence estimate that the United States is at a greater risk of attack than it was in September 2001.
Rather, he said, the high-level assessment from the nation's top analysts doesn't "really talk about" an increased threat inside the U.S. border.
"We are certainly more vigilant. We are better prepared," said Negroponte. "We are safer. The threat to the homeland itself has — if anything — been reduced since 9/11."
Negroponte's words came at a dinner at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center after the disclosure of a National Intelligence Estimate this weekend, which gave new fervor to an election-year debate about how the Iraq war has affected national security threats.
The report, Negroponte said, broadly addressed the global terrorist threat, not just the impact of Iraq. Yet Negroponte acknowledged that U.S. analysts believe "the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives."
The report distills the thinking of senior U.S. intelligence analysts working throughout the nation's 16 spy agencies. Its conclusions are considered to be the voice of the U.S. intelligence community.
The New York Times first reported Saturday that the highly classified assessment finds that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has helped fuel a new generation of extremists and that the overall terror threat has grown since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — a conclusion at odds with President Bush's assertions that the nation is safer.
But Bush administration officials, including Negroponte, are contesting the media accounts, saying they describe only a portion of the conclusions and therefore distort the analysts' findings on trends in global terrorism.
The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee urged the Bush administration Monday to declassify the intelligence assessment.
Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the American people should be able to see a public version of the report and draw their own conclusions about its contents. So far, he said, the public discussion has given the "false impression" that the National Intelligence Estimate focuses exclusively on Iraq and terrorism.
"That is not true," Roberts said, noting that the committee has had the report since April. "This NIE examines global terrorism in its totality."
In a letter to Negroponte, West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the committee's top Democrat, said declassifying the report's conclusions would provide a complete picture of the report and "contribute greatly to the public debate" on counterterrorism policies.
Negroponte said he would consider the proposal in the next several days, given the serious interest in the document.
Generally characterizing U.S. intelligence assessments, Negroponte said counterterrorism efforts have seriously damaged the leadership of Al Qaeda, but the group continues to pose the most significant threat to U.S. interests.
He said analysts believe the global jihadist movement is adapting to U.S. counterterrorism efforts and is spreading. The fuel, he said, includes:
—Entrenched grievances such as corruption and fear of Western domination.
—The jihad in Iraq.
—The slow pace of sustained economic, social and political reforms in many Muslim nations.
—Pervasive anti-U.S. sentiment among most Muslims.
Negroponte, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, was asked Monday whether he was surprised by the level of violence between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite populations. He said he didn't expect the sectarian violence to reach the levels it did, particularly with the intensity that came after the February bombing of a revered shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
He said the establishment of the military and police forces is "one of the great challenges that one confronts in these kinds of conflicted situations."
"How do you help build up local capacity, whether it's military or police?" Negroponte asked. "Perhaps we didn't start soon enough with that endeavor, but we are certainly totally committed to it now."