In 2012, the Obama administration produced a draft National Intelligence Estimate that reached a surprising conclusion: al Qaeda was no longer a direct threat to America. That classified assessment, which has never before been publicly disclosed, was in keeping with the message coming from the White House. President Obama rode to re-election in 2012 partly on the success of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. At rallies and in press conferences, the president and top officials publicly said al Qaeda was on the run.
But some senior U.S. intelligence officials, like Defense Intelligence Agency Director Gen. Michael Flynn, fought hard against that assessment, which amounted to an official pronouncement of the American intelligence community’s collected wisdom. Flynn and his faction won a partial victory, striking the judgment that the terrorist group no longer posed a threat to the homeland. “Flynn and others at the time made it clear they would not go along with that kind of assessment,” one U.S. intelligence officer who worked on the al Qaeda file told The Daily Beast. “It was basically: ‘Over my dead body.’”
Since that internal clash—and since Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union that “al Qaeda operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can’t escape the reach of the United States of America”—the terror group has thrived throughout the Islamic world. In the last year alone, al Qaeda has established safe havens in Libya, Syria and Iraq.
And so naturally, the White House has softened its earlier position, concluding that al Qaeda and its affiliates still represented a serious threat. But the tension between the White House and many top military and intelligence officials fighting the long war remain.
In interviews with many of them, a common theme is sounded: The threat from al Qaeda is rising, but the White House is looking to ratchet down the war against these Islamic extremists. As a result, intelligence gathered on these threats remain shrouded from the public and, in many cases, from senior government officials. And now Congress and the White House are beginning to consider modifying—and possibly revoking—the very authority to find, fix and finish those terrorists who pose the threat today.
One senior U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast the frustration was that there is pressure from the White House to downplay the threat from some al Qaeda affiliates. “It comes from the top, it’s the message that al Qaeda is all these small franchise groups and they are not coordinated and threatening,” this official said. “It’s the whole idea of getting us out to place resources against something that they don’t think is a problem. It’s not their war, it’s not our conflict.”
The White House, naturally, has a different position. Caitlin Hayden, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, in a lengthy email to The Daily Beast outlining White House counter-terrorism policies, said, “As the President has emphasized, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat specific networks of violent extremists that threaten the United States.”
And, of course, it should be noted that the U.S. intelligence community still spends an enormous amount of money on counter-terrorism: $17.2 billion in 2013 alone, according to budget documents published by The Washington Post. But that money, after years of unchecked expansion, has leveled off as the nation’s intelligence agencies have begun to steer resources towards cyber security and other issues.
This week, this internal struggle over the response to al Qaeda is reaching a crucial moment. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday will hold a nearly unprecedented hearing on the 2001 law that authorizes a long, global war against al Qaeda and its allies.
At the same time, U.S. intelligence officers say, there is deep division within their ranks–and with the White House—about the strength of al Qaeda in the place where that war began: Afghanistan. The current estimate of the terror group’s presence there says that al Qaeda has a little more than 100 fighters in the country’s province of Kunar. That, these intelligence officers contend, is wildly out of date. “Al Qaeda has a presence all over Afghanistan today,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast. “This is the conversation that no one wants to have. What are they going to do after 2014 when most of our troops will be gone?”
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