The war in Iraq has increased — and not, as the Bush administration has implied, decreased — the threat of terrorism, according to a National Intelligence Estimate leaked over the weekend.

NIEs are consensus assessments by the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, and this consensus, finished last April, is bleak. By serving as a unifying focal point for radical anti-Western groups who may otherwise have little in common, the war in Iraq has increased the number of terrorists, spread them over the globe and caused them to link up via the Internet. Moreover, the number of terrorists is growing faster than they can be eliminated.

While Democrats quickly seized on the NIE as evidence of a failing Bush policy, the leak at first glance seems designed more to influence a policy debate within the administration rather than serve as political fodder.

The White House reaction was that the NIE is nothing that President Bush hasn’t already said. In the words of his press secretary, al Qaeda’s leadership "has been hit hard; it has become more dispersed; that there is more independent activity; that they’re using other means for communication and organization …"

But the NIE is absent the usual positive White House spin, and only recently, on the anniversary of 9/11, the White House insisted that the president had made Americans safer, reducing the terrorist threat by disrupting and dispersing al Qaeda.

And, after the leak of the NIE, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, embarking on some damage control, said the NIE was a "narrow prism of a fraction of judgments" and that "we have achieved some notable successes against the global jihadist threat."

Even without undue parsing, nothing in the director’s statement really contradicts the intelligence estimate. Also, the NIE could not come as a surprise to even a casual follower of the news dismayed at a series of U.S. setbacks in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Mideast that we have so far been unable to reverse.

The NIEs are assessments, not policy prescriptions; they describe, but do not recommend. But election-year posturing should not obscure the fact that it is, above all, a clear warning.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)

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