A new appraisal that Al-Qaeda is back in business fueled an angry Democratic clamor for President George W. Bush to end the war in Iraq and focus on eliminating Osama bin Laden's resurgent network.
The latest US "national intelligence estimate" (NIE) released Tuesday revived acrimonious arguments over whether Bush has made the United States more or less vulnerable to terrorism.
The administration pushed its line that the United States is "safer but not yet safe" as a result of its actions since the September 11 attacks of 2001, and now is not the time to abandon a new front of the "war on terror" in Iraq.
Adamant that Al-Qaeda wants a foothold in Iraq "to spread their poisonous ideology," Bush said the group responsible for the 9/11 strikes "would have been a heck of a lot stronger today had we not stayed on the offense."
The NIE's "key judgments" on the terrorist threat to the United States concluded that Al-Qaeda is gaining strength in a lawless zone of Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan.
"As a result, we judge the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment," said the report, the considered view of US spymasters and analysts.
It said Al-Qaeda "has protected or regenerated key elements of its homeland (US) attack capability, including: a safe haven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas, operational lieutenants, and its top leadership."
Nearly six years on from the 9/11 attacks, which killed roughly 3,000 people, Bush critics demanded to know why their prime architects are still on the run and redoubled calls for an early withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
"After almost six years, awesome sacrifices by our brave men and women in uniform, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, we are no safer than we were on 9/11," Democratic Senator and White House contender Barack Obama said.
"This is a consequence of waging a misguided war in Iraq that should never have been authorized, and failing to seize the opportunity to do lasting harm to the extremist networks that pose a direct threat to our homeland," he said.
"It is time to act to correct those mistakes, and the first step is to get out of Iraq, because you can't win a war when you're on the wrong battlefield."
The intelligence report maintained that "Al-Qaeda in Iraq" has become "the most visible and capable affiliate" of bin Laden's network with an intent to attack the United States.
The Iraqi branch helps Al-Qaeda as a whole "to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for homeland attacks."
Former senator John Edwards, another Democrat in the 2008 presidential race, said the NIE was "proof positive" that Bush's war on terror was nothing more than a "bumper sticker" and Iraq a dangerous diversion.
"This administration has failed America -- six years after 9/11, bin Laden is still alive, Al-Qaeda is more powerful now than ever before, and we have fewer allies," he said.
With a rare all-night session of the Senate Tuesday into Wednesday, Democrats battled anew to force through a plan to get most US combat troops home from Iraq by the end of April.
But despite help from several Republican rebels, they seemed certain to fall short of the 60-vote super-majority in the 100-member chamber needed to thwart Republican blocking tactics.
John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, said the NIE "should strengthen our resolve to protect the American people from a determined enemy bent on destroying our way of life."
"Our efforts have helped stop terror plots worldwide before they happen, saved American lives, and have made our country safer than on 9/11," he said.