WASHINGTON – Although Al Qaeda has been weakened in the past year and a half, the terror network still poses the greatest terror threat to America and will do anything it can to "inflict significant casualties" on the United States, U.S. intelligence chiefs told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Tuesday.
"Al Qaeda is still dedicated to striking the United States homeland," CIA Director George Tenet said in his remarks. "We place no limitations on our expectations on what Al Qaeda might do to survive."
"The Al Qaeda terrorist network is clearly the most urgent threat to U.S. interests," said FBI Director Robert Mueller. "The organization maintains the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the United States with little warning.
"We face a long war whose end is difficult to foresee."
But agency heads also said their agencies are far better prepared to detect and head off attacks than they were before Sept. 11, 2001.
The FBI will do whatever it takes to stay "one step ahead of our enemies," Mueller said.
"Defense intelligence is at war on a global scale and all of our resources -- people and systems -- are completely engaged," said Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The CIA and FBI were slammed by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle after Sept. 11 for not sharing information and for not quickly and effectively analyzing intelligence data that could prevent future attacks.
"While our intelligence agencies and military forces have won some tremendous victories in the past year and a half … there is much, much left to do," the panel's new chairman, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, said in his opening remarks. "This past year has not been an easy one for our intelligence community."
But Roberts has said he sees signs of improvement after the onslaught of criticism.
"I also want to make clear that our intelligence agencies have, for the most part, reacted to the crises of Sept. 11 in ways that should make all Americans proud," Roberts said. "The [intelligence] community today is a very different place than it was before the attacks upon the Pentagon and the World Trade Center."
Tenet gave his annual assessments of global threats to national security, which covered a host of issues ranging from Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to those involving Iraq, North Korea and other countries.
He said last week's heightened security alert was due to increased chatter intelligence sources obtained regarding the United States and the Arabian Peninsula. That information showed that these two regions faced threats of a radiological nature, as well as poisons, during the Hajj.
Tenet stressed that "the intelligence is not idle chatter … it is the most specific we have seen." It "underscores the threat the Al Qaeda network continues to pose to the United States."
It will take "years of determined work" hunting down terrorist groups to "stamp them out," Tenet said, but noted that the United States and its 100 ally countries have detained 3,000 Al Qaeda suspects
"The worldwide rousting of Al Qaeda has definitely disrupted its operations," Tenet said.
But he noted that more than 600 people were killed globally in terrorist attacks last year -- 200 of which were Al Qaeda related. Nineteen of those were U.S. citizens.
"We place no limitations on our expectations on what Al Qaeda might do to survive," Tenet said.
There are "disturbing signs" the terror network has a solid presence in Iran and Iraq, and is taking refuge in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the CIA director said. It's also refining new means of attacks, such as surface-to-air missiles, poisons and underwater missiles to attack underwater targets "to achieve multiple objectives, striking prominent landmarks, inflicting mass casualties," and causing economic strife, he said.
"Al Qaeda is living in the expectation of resuming the offensive," Tenet added.
Mueller presented the FBI's first-ever National Terrorist Threat Assessment, a version of which had been completed on Sept. 10, 2001. It has now been rewritten, in part to reflect the FBI's new top priority of preventing terrorism rather than catching criminals.
Mueller said Al Qaeda is viable even though the organization is scattered after losing its refuge in Afghanistan. And there remains a grave threat of chemical, biological or radiological attacks, as well as more conventional bombings and individual acts such as assassinations or kidnappings at home and abroad.
"The Al Qaeda network will remain, for the foreseeable future, the most urgent threat to this country," Mueller said, "but it does not operate in a vacuum," since other terrorist groups support it.
The FBI has found that Islamic militants are living here in the Untied States, several hundred of whom are linked to Al Qaeda. Many of these groups focus on fundraising through charities or other means, recruitment and training. One or more groups can be mobilized by Al Qaeda to carry out operations here, Mueller said.
"Finding and rooting out Al Qaeda members once they have entered the United States and have time to establish themselves is our most serious intelligence and law enforcement challenge," Mueller said.
Mueller's greatest concern, he said, is that Al Qaeda and other terrorist regimes are trying to obtain biological, chemical or radiological weapons via the Internet. That would be a "huge morale boost" for a terror network being weakened every day, he said. But another fear is that terrorist-sponsoring states such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Cuba and North Korea would give these groups such weapons, he said.
But the FBI is committed to transforming itself to deal with these new threats, Mueller said.
The agency has boosted its counterterrorism resources and personnel, Mueller said, and has established a College of Analytical Studies -- with the help of the CIA -- to train new intelligence analysts. The FBI has also improved the terrorist threat warning system, set up a threat-monitoring unit to produce daily threat matrix, set up a 24-hour terrorist watch center and has focused resources specifically on operations such as terrorist financing operations.
The FBI is also working more closely with state and local governments to better train law enforcement personnel on the ground.
"I am committed to the closest possible cooperation with the intelligence community and other government agencies, as well as state and local agencies, and I should not leave out our counterparts overseas," Mueller said.
Roberts said he and committee Vice Chairman Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., have been visiting some of the nation's 13 intelligence facilities to see for themselves the improvements being made. The two lawmakers are having "what I call 'meaningful dialogue'" with intelligence experts, Roberts said.
"So far, I have been … very impressed by these visits," he said.
Roberts said that as head of the select intelligence panel, "I intend to conduct vigorous oversight of the intelligence community," and probe issues such as structural reform and intelligence shortfalls. Saying he will take "a very hard look" at threats facing this country, Roberts committed to work very closely with the independent commission probing the Sept. 11 attacks.