President George W. Bush on Wednesday will assert that Osama bin Laden ordered a top lieutenant in early 2005 to form a terrorist unit to hit targets outside Iraq – and that the U.S. must be first in his list of targets.
The information, which Bush will cite in a commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, was declassified by the White House on Tuesday. It expands on a classified bulletin the Homeland Security Department issued back in March, 2005.
The bulletin, which warned that bin Laden had enlisted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his senior operative in Iraq, to plan potential strikes in the United States, was described at the time as credible but not specific. It did not prompt the administration to raise its national terror alert level.
Bush, who is battling Democrats in Congress over spending for the unpopular war in Iraq, will highlight U.S. successes in foiling terrorist plots and use the intelligence to argue that terrorists remain a threat to Americans, Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser, said in previewing the president's remarks in New London, Conn.
Townsend, reading from notes, said the declassified intelligence showed that in January 2005, bin Laden tasked al-Zarqawi to organize the cell. Al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaida's Iraq operations, was killed there in June 2006 by a U.S. airstrike.
"We know from the intelligence community that al-Zarqawi welcomed the tasking and claimed he already had some good proposals," Townsend said.
She said that in the spring of 2005, bin Laden instructed Hamza Rabia, a senior operative, to brief al-Zarqawi on al-Qaida planning to attack sites outside Iraq, including the United States. She did not disclose where in the United States those attacks were being plotted.
Around the same time, Abu Fajah al-Libi, a senior al-Qaida manager, suggested that bin Laden send Rabia to Iraq to actually help al-Zarqawi plan the external operations, Townsend said. It is unclear whether Rabia went to Iraq, she said.
She said the information was declassified because the intelligence community has tracked all leads from the information, and that the players were either dead or in U.S. custody.
The Bush White House in the past has declassified and made public sensitive intelligence information to help rebut critics or defend programs or decisions against possibly adverse decisions in the Congress or the courts. On a few occasions, the declassified materials intended as proof that terrorists see Iraq as a critical staging ground for global operations.
Democrats and other critics have accused Bush of selectively declassifying intelligence, including portions of a sensitive National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, to justify the U.S.-led invasion on the ground that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. That assertion proved false.