Al Qaeda terrorism remains the most serious threat to U.S. national security, and the insurgency in Iraq shows no sign of abating, the nation’s top intelligence official told the Senate yesterday.
Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte also said that Iran’s nuclear development program is “an immediate concern,” although Tehran probably does not yet have a nuclear device.
Mr. Negroponte and other senior U.S. intelligence officials appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the annual threat briefing on dangers to U.S. security.
“Attacking the United States homeland, United States interests overseas and United States allies — in that order — are al Qaeda’s top operational priorities,” he said.
“The group will attempt high-impact attacks for as long as its central command structure is functioning and affiliated groups are capable of furthering its interests because even modest operational capabilities can yield a deadly and damaging attack.”
Democrats at the hearing questioned the intelligence officials about the legality of the once-secret National Security Agency electronic eavesdropping program.
“We believe that all these activities are being undertaken in full compliance with our Constitution and with the laws of our country,” Mr. Negroponte said, noting that the program to monitor suspected al Qaeda overseas phone calls to the United States has helped in dealing with the terrorist threat.
The top-secret NSA program was exposed by the New York Times. The revelation has hurt U.S. intelligence, said Porter Goss, director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“The damage has been very severe to our capabilities to carry out our mission,” Mr. Goss told the committee. “There has been an erosion of the culture of secrecy.”
Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and committee chairman, said, “Our enemies are continually probing our defenses and adjusting their tactics in an attempt to launch a successful mass casualty attack.”
As in past threat assessments, Mr. Negroponte said al Qaeda is pursuing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons for its attacks, but its most likely method will be the use of conventional explosives.
Nearly 40 terrorist organizations or similar groups have used, acquired or shown interest in weapons of mass destruction, he said.
The merger of al Qaeda with the Iraq-based terror group headed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi has extended the reach of the group and broadened its ideological appeal.
For the first time, U.S. intelligence has learned al Qaeda’s vision from a letter from al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The group believes its terrorist activities in Iraq are a “steppingstone” to the creation of a global Islamist “caliphate,” or ruling regime.
Mr. Negroponte said a “homegrown” U.S. version of al Qaeda affiliated terrorists was uncovered last year in Lodi, Calif.