Politics

Intel Director: U.S. Now Safer From Al Qaeda

WASHINGTON -- The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would not have happened had U.S. intelligence agencies been organized in 2001 the way they are now, the top U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday.

"Had we been in business back then we would have stopped it," National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

He said the government's 16 intelligence agencies are foiling planned terror attacks now with less information than they had at their disposal before 9/11. The difference is the offices now cooperate and share information more readily, he said.

As director, Blair is in charge of directing and coordinating those efforts. His office was created by Congress in 2004 on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.

Blair told reporters earlier Tuesday that the United States is safer from Al Qaeda and is able to launch more aggressive attacks against the terrorist organization because it has developed a more sophisticated understanding of the group.

"What has really made all the nations safer has been the accumulation of knowledge about Al Qaeda and its affiliate groups which enables us to ... stop things before they happen," he said. "We can be more aggressive because we are gaining more and more knowledge."

The intelligence agencies' worries are largely the same as they were eight years ago after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: terror groups seeking nuclear weapons; militants and insurgents exploiting failed states, and Iran and North Korea growing nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Those concerns are outlined in a new four-year strategy released Tuesday that will be used to guide the 16 agencies that conduct intelligence for the U.S. government.

Blair added a few new concerns to the list: the global economic crisis, a potential global pandemic; and climate change that could lead to nations competing over energy and water resources.

The document also raises concern about China's aggressive pursuit of natural resources around the world and its work to modernize its military. And Russia, a partner in securing nuclear materials and combating nuclear terrorism, may also try to reassert itself as a regional or global power, the document said.

The strategy urges an emphasis on counterintelligence against spies and criminals targeting U.S. computer networks for exploitation and theft. Intelligence officials believe adversaries are more interested than ever in stealing those secrets.

The plan sets out six objectives for the agencies under Blair's leadership: combating violent extremism, countering the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, providing warning about impending crises and intelligence insight to guide policy; improving counterintelligence; protecting computer networks from cyber threats; and providing intelligence to support current operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico and elsewhere.