Opinion: Columnists

James Carafano: Intelligent delusions on al Qaeda

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One enterprising U.S. intelligence officer discovered the singers in the Vienna Opera were always the first to know, well, everything. For a string of sausages, he could get a couple of tickets -- and the latest rumors.

This was life in postwar Austria, a country jointly occupied by the Allies. For American intelligence, the No. 1 question every day was: What are the Soviets up to?

Over the years, the American intelligence assessment went from fairly complacent to alarming. By the mid-'50s, reports flashed warnings that Moscow might instigate an armed revolution against the Austrian government.

The most remarkable thing about the shift in U.S. intelligence estimates is that it had virtually nothing to do with the intelligence actually being collected. A decade after the occupation of Austria, the Soviet sector was as opaque to Americans as it was on V-E Day. What little intelligence the U.S. did gather was fragmented, ambiguous and often contradictory.

What had changed was not real-world risks but the signals from Washington. As the Pentagon became more concerned about the Soviet threat to Western Europe, the U.S. military in Austria interpreted what little it did know in a more ominous manner.

Arguably, U.S. intelligence made the same error -- in reverse -- in analyzing the WMD threat before the Iraq War. And now there is every sign that the intelligence community, in analyzing the al Qaeda threat, is making the same mistake again.

The administration is writing a narrative that the al Qaeda threat is on the wane. The White House now distinguishes between al Qaeda "core" and al Qaeda "franchises" or affiliates. Basically, it argues, the core represents the major threat to the homeland, and most of the core is gone. This leads to the comfortable view that Washington's task now is just to monitor the franchise threat and keep watch on the homeland. Somalia and Yemen are seen as success stories and models for elsewhere.

Essentially, the White House has drawn a clear line between groups focused on attacking U.S. and other Western targets (which it cares about) and others (which it largely doesn't).

But this narrative overlooks a lot. It ignores the resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq, the foreign fighters in Syria, and allies of the Taliban and al Qaeda, such as the Haqqani network in Pakistan. Nor can the White House explain the chain of terrorists that has left a trail of blood from Libya to Mali to Algeria.

In describing the challenge as the mere dismantling of a transnational terrorist network, rather than as battling a global Islamist insurgency, the White House misses the true nature of the danger. Al Qaeda does not have the narrow goal of attacking the U.S. Its goal is to seize power across a wide swath of the globe. Threatening U.S. vital interests is just part of the strategy for getting there.

Yet the administration appears blind to the larger, ideological struggle. It seems completely baffled about how to respond to the Arab Spring.

Right now there appears to be a bit of detente between the Islamists and the Islamist terrorists. The future is unwritten. The two factions might clash, political Islamists might drift into al Qaeda's fold, or terrorists might turn more to working the political ropes. None of these outcomes bodes well for the U.S. But rather than warning signals, the White House conveys a "don't worry, be happy" message that fits its narrative.

Now John Brennan, the chief scriptwriter of that narrative, is about to become the head of the CIA. What kind of objective intelligence can we expect in the future?

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation

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