WASHINGTON – Usama bin Laden's henchmen could strike the U.S. again soon, the heads of the FBI and CIA warned congressmen Thursday -- and there's little we can do about it.
"I have a hard time telling the country that you should be comfortable, that we've covered all the bases, in the wake of what we saw they were able to accomplish on Sept. 11," FBI Director Robert Mueller told the House and Senate Intelligence committees.
CIA Director George Tenet said the current situation is similar to just before Sept. 11, 2001.
"You must make the analytical judgment that the possibility exists that people are planning to attack you inside the United States -- multiple simultaneous attacks," Tenet said. "We are the enemy. We're the people they want to hurt inside this country."
The special joint session of the House and Senate committees had been convened to probe intelligence failures before Sept. 11, but many lawmakers really had only two questions: How likely is another attack, and how prepared are U.S. officials to deal with it?
Mueller and Tenet's answers were not comforting.
"You must make the assumption that Al Qaeda is in an execution phase and intends to strike us both here and overseas," Tenet said, noting recent attacks in Kuwait and Indonesia and off the Yemeni coast. "That's unambiguous as far as I'm concerned."
Tenet said Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has already taken defensive measures "in specific areas where the intelligence was most credible and in sectors where we're most worried about." He did not identify them.
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., noted intelligence warnings that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein could order terrorist attacks against Americans if the United States invaded his country.
"I'm concerned that we are not prepared for that, particularly not prepared here inside the United States," Graham said in an interview.
Mueller said the FBI was focusing on the threat of terrorists who would use military action against Iraq as a pretext to strike. But he said an attack as meticulously planned and executed as the Sept. 11 hijackings would be hard to stop.
At Thursday's hearing, Tenet offered his most detailed public accounting to date of what the CIA did to stop bin Laden's terrorist network before Sept. 11. He said his agency has saved thousands of lives by successfully stopping terrorist attacks, but admitted some mistakes were made.
Tenet said the CIA was convinced months before the Sept. 11 hijackings that bin Laden was plotting to kill large numbers of Americans, but the intelligence available was "maddeningly short" of details.
"The most ominous reporting hinting at something large was also the most vague," he said.
The session was last of five weeks of public hearings, part of the committees' inquiry into intelligence failures leading up to the attacks. A final report will be issued in coming months.
Tenet, Mueller and National Security Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden rejected criticism by inquiry staff that U.S. counterterrorism efforts were hampered by a failure to share information and that they hadn't made fighting terrorism a high enough priority before the attacks.
Tenet highlighted agency successes, many of them long secret, including the thwarting of planned attacks in Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Tenet also said the CIA lost 18 percent of its budget and 16 percent of its personnel in post-Cold War cutbacks.
But even before he spoke, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Whip from California, said: "It's not enough to say we didn't have enough money or enough people. No one does. That's always the case. It's about establishing priorities."
Tenet also clashed with the committees in an area in which he admitted mistakes: the CIA's failure to put two future Sept. 11 hijackers on watch lists preventing their entry into the United States after they were first associated with Al Qaeda, in early 2000. They weren't placed on the lists until a few weeks before the attacks.
Tenet said the CIA had alerted the FBI in January 2000 that one of the hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, had a U.S. visa; the inquiry staff director said no evidence has been found showing the FBI was told about the visa.
After Tenet said that apparently no one at CIA headquarters had read a cable that said al-Mihdhar had flown to Los Angeles, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked if that was a mistake.
"Yes. Of course. In hindsight," Tenet responded.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.