Bush Rejects Claim Al Qaeda Is as Strong as It Was Prior to 9/11

A new threat assessment headed for the White House says Al Qaeda is "better positioned to strike the West," but President Bush insists the terror network is not as strong as it was before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Details of the report revealed by an unnamed counterterrorism official who revealed its contents to The Associated Press said Al Qaeda is "considerably operationally stronger than a year ago" and has "regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001."

"They are showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the United States," the official said. The group also has created "the most robust training program since 2001, with an interest in using European operatives," the official quoted the report as saying.

President Bush on Thursday called the terror network a "serious threat to our homeland" but said Al Qaeda is weaker than it was prior to Sept. 11, 2001, when it struck a heavy blow on the United States.

"There is a perception in the coverage that Al Qaeda may be as strong today as they were prior to September the 11th. That's just simply not the case. I think the report will say since 2001, not prior to September the 11th, 2001," Bush told reporters, referencing a new threat assessment that says Al Qaeda has reconstituted itself to a level unseen since the months before Sept. 11, 2001.

"Because of the actions we've taken, Al Qaeda is weaker today than they would have been. They are still a threat. They are still dangerous. And that is why it is important that we succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq and anywhere else we find them. And that's (what) our strategy is — to stay on the offense against Al Qaeda," Bush said of efforts to strike down terrorists.

Bush was addressing reporters' questions after the release of an interim progress report prepared for Congress on Iraq. In the report, military officials note that Al Qaeda in Iraq has shown "resiliency" with its ability to pull off mass-casualty attacks, largely through vehicle-based bombings, but also says the number of those types of attacks decreased in May and June.

The administration also accuses Syria of supplying as many as 50 to 80 suicide bombers per month for Al Qaeda in Iraq and Iran of funding extremist groups.

Al Qaeda's overall strength is discussed in a five-page summary — titled "Al Qaeda better positioned to strike the West" — that is part of the upcoming National Intelligence Estimate being discussed at the White House on Thursday.

The threat assessment focuses on the terror group's safe haven in Pakistan and makes a range of observations about the threat posed to the United States and its allies, officials said.

A spokesman with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told FOX News that the new NIE could be "ready in a matter of weeks," and will deal with many of the threat assessment issues raised in the last 24 hours. The spokesman said "not to expect much daylight" between the new NIE and the description of Al Qaeda's regrouping along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The official who was familiar with the report said it will address "significant gaps in intelligence," suggesting that analysts may not know of a potential or planned attack on the U.S.

Earlier this week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he had a "gut feeling" that the United States faces a heightened risk of attack this summer. He would not point to any intelligence that would feed that gut feeling, and numerous government officials have said they know of no specific, credible threat of a new attack on U.S. soil.

Asked about his own sixth sense, Bush said he is working off facts.

"My gut tells me that — which my head tells me as well — is that when we find a credible threat, I'll share it with people to make sure that we protect the homeland. My head also tells me that Al Qaeda's a serious threat to our homeland. And we've got to continue making sure we've got good intelligence, good response mechanisms in place; that we've got to make sure we don't embolden them with — by failing in certain theaters of war where they're confronting us; that we ought to continue to keep the pressure on them," Bush said.

The Bush administration has repeatedly cited Al Qaeda as a key justification for continuing the fight in Iraq.

"The No. 1 enemy in Iraq is Al Qaeda," White House press secretary Tony Snow said Wednesday. "Al Qaeda continues to be the chief organizer of mayhem within Iraq."

The findings could be used to bolster the president's hand at a moment when support on Capitol Hill for the war is eroding and the administration is struggling to defend its decision for a military buildup in Iraq.

But congressional Democrats seized on Chertoff's remarks as well as the assessment to make the case that the Bush administration has its "eye off the ball" by focusing on Iraq, and the real enemy is Usama bin Laden and his top leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the U.S. should be focused on capturing these enemies.

"While Usama bin Laden is operating freely, we understand, on the Afghan-Pakistan border, the president wants to keep our troops in an open-ended war, a civil war in Iraq. It's really a travesty that Usama bin Laden is still at large almost six years after 9/11, but it's not surprising that Al Qaeda has been able to reorganize and rebuild because the administration has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to fighting terrorism," Reid said.

The threat assessment says that Al Qaeda stepped up efforts to "improve its core operational capability" in late 2004 but did not succeed until December of 2006 after the Pakistani government signed a peace agreement with tribal leaders that effectively removed government military presence from the northwest frontier with Afghanistan.

The agreement allows Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives to move across the border with impunity and establish and run training centers, the report says, according to the official.

"We're safer than we were before 9/11 and a lot of that is because of some of the things that we've done, but we're still not as safe as we need to be ... and part of that is because, as the report indicated, Al Qaeda, we ran them out of Afghanistan but they found a new safe haven in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and the Pakistani government made a most unfortunate decision about a year ago to withdraw from that area so Al Qaeda has put some roots down, they are feeling safer in that area," said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.

Reading the reports about Al Qaeda "sends shivers down your spine," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who along with Reid, and Sens. Dick Durbin and Patty Murray, are sending a letter to the White House asking what administration experts are doing to decrease the Al Qaeda build-up.

"If Al Qaeda is gaining strength, that is the greatest indictment of what we're doing in Iraq. Al Qaeda is our nemesis. Al Qaeda has attacked us. And they're gaining strength while our troops are dying in Iraq. Doesn't that say everything about how wrong this war in Iraq is?" Schumer said.

The report also also says that Al Qaeda is particularly interested in building up the numbers in its middle ranks, or operational positions, so there is not as great a lag in attacks when such people are killed.

"Being No. 3 in Al Qaeda is a bad job. We regularly get to the No. 3 person," Tom Fingar, the top U.S. intelligence analyst, told the House panel.

The report notes that Al Qaeda has increased its public statements, although analysts stressed that those video and audio messages aren't reliable indicators of the actions the group may take.

In testimony, John Kringen, who heads the CIA's analysis directorate, would not comment on the report being prepared about Al Qaeda's resurgence, but told a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday that the terror network has ample room to move around in Pakistan.

"They seem to be fairly well settled into the safe haven and the ungoverned spaces of Pakistan," Kringen testified. "We see more training. We see more money. We see more communications. We see that activity rising."

He added that the easiest way for Al Qaeda to get into the United States would be through Europe.

Several European countries — among them Britain, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands — are highlighted in the threat assessment partly because they have arrangements with the Pakistani government that allow their citizens easier access to Pakistan than others, according to the counterterrorism official.

This is more troubling because all four are part of the U.S. visa waiver program, and their citizens can enter the United States without additional security scrutiny, the official said.

FOX News' Catherine Herridge and Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.