WASHINGTON – Barack Obama and John McCain may continue to debate the merits of aggressive action overseas to protect U.S. security, but CIA Director Michael Hayden said Tuesday the United States needs to be committed to its strategy of "taking the fight to the enemy."
In an exclusive interview with FOX News, one of his last before a new White House administration takes over in January, Hayden said that the U.S. intelligence community is keeping a close eye on Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.
"All of the threats about which we are aware have threads that take them back into that Afghan/Pakistan border region, either in terms of command and control, or training, and direction," he said.
From CIA headquarters, Hayden made the case that a strong offense is the only defense in the war against Al Qaeda.
"And that's why there ... hasn't been an attack for over seven years. Again, the dynamic of our taking the fight to the enemy: making him worry about his own defense, putting him off-balance, sweeping up his operatives, drying up his money supply."
Although he pointed out that U.S. predator strikes have killed top operational commanders, Usama bin Laden still remains at large. Al Qaeda's hold is stronger now in the tribal areas of Pakistan than it was a year ago.
"It is more the safe haven now than it was one, two or three years ago. ... It represents more of a threat to Pakistan, to Afghanistan and to the rest of the world, including the United States, than it did two or three years ago," Hayden said.
Hayden was unwilling to predict whether there would be a significant power struggle in Al Qaeda if bin Laden were to be taken out. But with no clear replacement for bin Laden, the question of succession may be one of the network's bigger challenges, and that "distracts energy" from terror activities, Hayden said.
Despite some successes at dismantling the network, the CIA director said the threat from Al Qaeda is real. And the group's growing strength along the tribal areas along the Afghan/Pakistani border could be the single greatest threat to U.S. national security.
"Al Qaeda represents the most clear, most present danger, to the United States, certainly," he said. "What's changed -- dramatically changed -- since 9/11, is, we're not just playing in our own goal. We're moving the ball down the field, on our own. We're taking the fight to the enemy."
But the slaughter of Muslims by Muslims, particularly in Iraq where some Shiite groups switched alliances from Al Qaeda to Iraq to fighting alongside U.S. troops, is causing the Islamic world to second-guess the Al Qaeda network.
"Al Qaeda as an authentic, Islamic movement is being questioned more and more in the Islamic world. They are questioning not just its tactics but its vision," he said. "That, at the strategic level, may be the most important thing we're seeing."
Amid criticisms that U.S. intelligence community has been unable to capture bin Laden and is slow to respond to continued terror threats, Hayden said that he believes that the U.S. has better intelligence than before 9/11.
Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.