WASHINGTON – FBI Director Robert Mueller praised as "exceptionally successful" the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign overseas, saying Friday that it substantially disrupted Al Qaeda operations even as he cautioned Americans to remain on high alert.
Mueller, meeting with reporters for a wide-ranging interview at FBI headquarters, also expressed satisfaction with the investigation into anthrax mailings and sought to reassure the public that FBI agents are making progress.
"The investigation is going in a number of directions," Mueller said. He added that some leads have been "explored and re-explored," and he described recent demands for anthrax samples from U.S. laboratories as efforts to pin down in a way that can't be challenged in court the source of anthrax sent in at least five letters.
Mueller's remarks about the success of anti-terrorism efforts overseas followed comments from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that the U.S. war on terrorism "will have failed" unless America tracks down top Al Qaeda leaders. Separately, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., complained this week "there's no end in sight" to the nation's involvement in Afghanistan.
"The campaign in Afghanistan has been exceptionally successful in disrupting the capabilities of the organization," Mueller said. "It has taken away the sanctuary" where Al Qaeda was conducting day-to-day planning, he said.
But Mueller said Americans "ought to stay on high alert," and acknowledged again that he believes smaller units of Al Qaeda terrorists might still be operating, even within U.S. borders. Finding those small groups of terrorists — operating possibly in pairs or in threes — has proved frustratingly difficult for the FBI.
"Every time we adopt or adapt some new ploy to identify them ... they attempt, as one would expect, to adapt their procedures" to avoid the FBI, Mueller said. He said the 19 terrorists involved directly in the Sept. 11 hijackings "showed substantial discipline" after they crossed U.S. borders by not contacting other, known terrorists or conducting suspicious financial transactions that might have tipped off authorities.