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On the Scene: The bottom line on threat reports -- Is America safer?

  • Story Highlights
  • Estimate says al Qaeda stronger, trying to enter U.S.
  • Contradictory official statements make it difficult to say if we are safer or not
  • Report opens debate as to whether Iraq war lowered or increased terror threat
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By Ed Henry
CNN White House Correspondent
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- So let's cut to the chase on the new National Intelligence Estimate: Does it show America is safer today than it was on September 10, 2001 -- or not?

Getting a straight answer is not easy, especially with so many acronyms flying around -- this is an NIE from the DNI (director of national intelligence) that took into account intelligence analysis from the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) and the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) and ... well, you get the idea.

Then there's the reaction from the White House, which is downright confusing. On the one hand, the White House does not dispute the findings of the report, which declares: "The United States currently is in a heightened threat environment," especially from al Qaeda.

But on the other hand, White House Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend asserts President Bush's claim that al Qaeda "is on the run" is still applicable.

On one hand, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says just days before this report he has a "gut feeling" there could be a summer terrorist attack in America. But on the other hand, Townsend reiterates Chertoff's claim that there's "no specific, credible threat" against the United States right now.

Adding further confusion, this report re-ignites the ferocious debate over whether the war in Iraq took the president's eye off the broader war on terror, a point I pressed hard today in an on-camera White House briefing with Townsend.

(She and I have previously joked good-naturally off-camera about another back-and-forth we had in December 2006, when I asked her to admit that not catching Osama bin Laden is a major failure and she countered that capturing him is merely a "success that hasn't happened yet." Jon Stewart on "Comedy Central" had a field day with that exchange that even White House officials found amusing).

Today I pushed Townsend on the NIE's conclusion that al Qaeda "will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities" it's gained in Iraq to attempt to launch a terror attack on U.S. soil.

I reminded Townsend of a Senate Intelligence Committee report this spring showing the president was warned before the war that launching an attack against Iraq could help al Qaeda, which had little power in Baghdad then, gain influence down the road.

"Now you have a report suggesting maybe it has gained influence in the war in the Iraq," I asked. "Isn't that something the president ignored?"

"But you are assuming this a zero sum game, which is what I don't understand," Townsend said. "The fact is we were harassing them in Afghanistan, we are harassing them in Iraq, we are harassing them in other ways non-military around the world, and the answer is every time you poke the hornets' nest they are bound to come back and push back on you, that doesn't suggest to me that we shouldn't be doing it."

It's interesting Townsend used the phrase "hornets' nest," a configuration that critics have used to attack the war.

Another argument now under attack is the President's claim that Iraq is the "central front in the war on terror," when this report and others suggest that Pakistan is a safe haven for al Qaeda.

When my colleague Kelly O'Donnell of NBC News pressed that point today with White House spokesman Tony Snow, asking why the U.S. military won't go into Pakistan, she got a most intriguing answer.

"When you talk about the U.S. going in there, you don't blithely go into another nation and conduct operations," Snow said.

"Well, the president went into a sovereign nation in 2003," O'Donnell noted, in what seemed like an "aha!" moment.

"Well, he went into a sovereign nation that was in fact -- he also had with him the support of 17 U.N. resolutions, including Resolution 1441," Snow responded.

That exchange shows how the fight over the war in Iraq has twisted the White House into rhetorical knots.

On the question I posed at the top of this piece, Snow asserted al Qaeda is weaker than it was on September 11, 2001, because of defensive steps the United States has taken since then. "Weaker than it was a month ago," he added about al Qaeda.

While nobody knows with absolute certainty whether al Qaeda is "stronger" than it was in the past, the point is that this new report shows the terror organization is "strong" yet again.

And almost six years after the president declared he'd get bin Laden, dead or alive, he is apparently still at large. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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