WASHINGTON – Al Qaeda is damaged seriously, but it has spread its radical agenda to other groups that now pose the leading threat to the United States, CIA Director George Tenet (search) and other intelligence chiefs said Tuesday.
Tenet described a terrorist organization lacking central leadership and squeezed financially. Al Qaeda remains determined to attack U.S. interests, however, and still is capable of carrying out assaults on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001, he said.
In addition, dozens of smaller Islamic extremist organizations with ties to Al Qaeda have emerged, in places like Libya, Iraq and Uzbekistan, to constitute the next wave of terrorist threats, Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee in an annual public session on national security threats.
"The steady growth of Usama bin Laden's (search) anti-American sentiment through the wider Sunni extremist movement and the broad dissemination of Al Qaeda's destructive expertise ensure that a serious threat will remain for the foreseeable future, with or without Al Qaeda in the picture," Tenet said.
At Tuesday's politically charged hearing, given recent debate over the intelligence community's prewar assessments on Iraq's weapons, Tenet and other officials walked gingerly through questions on the intelligence agencies' cooperation and effectiveness. They touched on instability in countries from Haiti to Afghanistan, although Iraq dominated much of the discussion.
On Iraq, Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said allies of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein are thought to be responsible for most anti-U.S. attacks. Foreign fighters, including those from Al Qaeda, have carried out some of the most significant attacks and may be behind the high-casualty homicide bombings largely against Iraqi targets, he said.
"Left unchecked," Jacoby said, "Iraq has the potential to serve as a training ground for the next generation of terrorists."
Further, many in the country's Sunni minority, which prospered during Saddam's Baath party control, have yet to decide whether to support the U.S. coalition or the resistance, Jacoby said. "The key factors in this decision are stability and a future that presents viable alternatives to the Baathists or Islamists," he said.
Largely ignoring an appeal from the committee chairman, Pat Roberts, R-Kan., to focus on current threats, Republican and Democratic lawmakers questioned the intelligence chiefs about intelligence mistakes before the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Iraq. The agencies' performance in those crises has called into question the reliability of intelligence and the Bush administration's pre-emptive strike doctrine.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, asked Tenet how, since a National Security Strategy promulgated in September 2002 set up a strategy of pre-emption, Bush and other administration officials used words like "grave and gathering threat" to describe the level of Saddam's danger to the United States. International law traditionally requires that a threat be "imminent" before a nation can defend against it.
"If it wasn't an imminent threat in your mind, how would you have characterized or assessed the threat?" Snowe asked.
Tenet said intelligence analysts were "quite worried " about surprise attacks and what they didn't know, given Saddam's history of deception. Estimates also indicated he had biological and chemical weapons, and other programs. "Whether it stands up or it doesn't stand up over the course of time is something we're going to look at quite carefully," he said.
"People voted to authorize the use of force based on what we read in these reports," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "It's a pretty bitter pill to swallow, particularly with a pre-emptive war."
After the hearing, Roberts told reporters that "everybody would have some second thoughts" about the rationalization for war, but he believes that Saddam posed a national security threat, "in some ways even more dangerous" than expected, due to the deterioration of his leadership.
Also at the hearing:
-- Tenet said officials have uncovered plans to recruit pilots and evade security measures in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe. In the last year, officials also have seen an increase in threats from more sophisticated chemical, biological and radiological weapons. They've learned of widely disseminated instructions for an improvised chemical weapon, he said.
-- When asked if the country is safer today than a year ago, Tenet, Jacoby and FBI Director Robert Mueller (search) all said yes. Mueller later cautioned that threats may be more significant because of the decentralization that followed the undoing of many terrorist leaders and their sanctuaries in Afghanistan. He said the country is safer, however, because of government protection.
-- Tenet rejected suggestions that the CIA did not follow up on a 1999 German intelligence tip about one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, a first name and a phone number. "You got a name, named Joe, and here's the phone number," Tenet said. "We didn't have enough, but we didn't sit around."
-- Tenet praised "great cooperation" from Muslim leaders, including Pakistani Gen. President Pervez Musharraf, who "remains a courageous and indispensable ally who has become the target of assassins for the help he's given us."