WASHINGTON – America's top two intelligence officials said Tuesday that al-Qaida is weaker and U.S. intelligence agencies are smarter since the Sept. 11 attacks — but the terrorists are nowhere near giving up.
In his first week on the job, CIA director David Petraeus told members of Congress that al-Qaida's recent losses of Osama bin Laden and others have opened "an important window of vulnerability."
Petraeus predicted that al-Qaida leaders may even flee to Afghanistan or leave South Asia altogether to escape the CIA, which has quadrupled covert drone strikes against al-Qaida under the Obama administration. He testified at a joint congressional intelligence committee hearing.
Petraeus and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, both said that al-Qaida's Yemeni offshoots and others are growing more daring and dangerous — a sentiment shared by lawmakers.
The chairman of the House intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, R-Mich, warned against dismissing new al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as "feckless" and dismissed suggestions that "the threat of terrorism has significantly waned." He said he feared Americans becoming complacent.
"Are we safer today? I say yes," said Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the head of the Senate's intelligence committee. Tuesday was the first combined hearing since Congress' joint inquiry into the 2001 terrorist attacks. "More than one-half of al-Qaida's top leadership has been eliminated....Virtually every major al-Qaida affiliate has lost a key leader."
But Feinstein warned that "there is a metastasizing set of groups," including militants in Pakistan and Yemen, that uses everything from small arms to explosives disguised in printer cartridges.
Clapper and Feinstein both complimented the FBI's shift to strengthen its counterterrorist division.
Separately, Petraeus also disclosed that the CIA's inspector general is investigating whether the CIA broke any laws in its close cooperation with the New York Police Department. The CIA's unprecedented cooperation with the NYPD's intelligence division was the subject of an eight-month investigation by The Associated Press. The AP found that the department has dispatched undercover officers, known as "rakers," into minority neighborhoods as part of a human mapping program, according to officials directly involved in the program. They've monitored daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes and nightclubs. Police have also used informants, known as "mosque crawlers," to monitor sermons, even when there's no evidence of wrongdoing.
The CIA is prohibited from spying on Americans but was instrumental in transforming the NYPD's intelligence unit.
The new director said the investigation was launched at the request of acting director Michael Morell, before Petraeus took office just over a week ago, "to make sure we are doing the right thing."
Clapper faced several questions about how he will find ways to spend less money. He called it a "litmus test for this office to preside over the budget cuts" without making what Clapper called the mistakes of the 1990s, where across-the-board cuts led to hiring freezes in the CIA and beyond. He said the priority would be to protect people over systems and keep hiring new staff.
He identified information technology as a key target for budget cuts, with the goal of putting as many of the 16 agencies on the same computer systems to save money by eliminating redundancy.
Petraeus faced questioning on the use of harsh interrogation techniques like water-boarding, used by the Bush administration. He said while he did not support such techniques, he indicated it was time to stop investigating CIA interrogators who then employed them.
"Now it is time to take the rear mirror off the bus and look forward ... and move on," Petraeus said.
Two demonstrators from Code Pink, the anti-war group, held signs denouncing the CIA's covert drone war against militants in Pakistan. The Obama administration has quadrupled drone attacks since the previous administration, which former top counterterror official Michael Leiter called "the single most effective tool against the group."
Petraeus and his staff ignored the outburst, and the demonstrators were allowed to stay in the committee room.
Counterterrorism officials across New York and Washington braced for a possible al-Qaida car bomb attack over the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks.
When asked if that threat was past, Petraeus told the AP after the hearing, "We're not done."