Al Qaeda seen in search of nukes

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Al Qaeda terrorists are continuing to plan attacks against the United States and are seeking nuclear and other unconventional arms for the strikes, a senior Pentagon official told Congress yesterday.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told a joint House committee hearing that al Qaeda has conducted terrorist attacks against more than two dozen nations since September 11.

Al Qaeda has and will continue to attempt visually dramatic mass-casualty attacks here at home, and they will continue to attempt to acquire chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials,” Gen. Clapper said in discussing the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on threats to the United States. “And if they’re so successful in obtaining these materials, we believe they would use them.”

He spoke before a joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Gen. Clapper said that al Qaeda has “reconstituted some of its command and support network” in tribal Pakistan along the Afghan border but that the estimates finding are “not a surprise.”

“We are at war with an enemy not confined to national boundaries or a single ethnic group,” he said. “Our fight against extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world has kept our nation safe from attacks here at home.”

Gen. Clapper warned that al Qaeda is trying to develop or acquire from rogue states nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and said “we can be certain that they will use such weapons against the United States at their first opportunity, especially, if they can, on American soil to kill our citizens, destroy our property, disrupt our economy and attempt to break our national will to resist their extremist objectives.”

The testimony followed comments by President Bush on Tuesday that al Qaeda is “fighting us in Iraq and across the world and plotting to kill Americans here at home again.”

“The primary concern is al Qaeda in South Asia organizing its own plots against the United States,” Edward Gistaro, a national intelligence officer who drafted the estimate, told the hearing.

Mr. Gistaro said “we do not see” al Qaeda operatives working inside the United States. “Our concern that we see increased efforts on the part of al Qaeda to try and find, train and deploy people who could get into this country,” he said.

Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the findings of the estimate, a consensus analysis of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, show “the news is not good.”

“The recent NIE paints this picture clearly — an unstable region within the borders of Pakistan,” Mr. Skelton told the hearing. “It describes a strong and resurgent al Qaeda; and it warns of a heightened threat environment — one that is, in my humble opinion, unworthy of a superpower.”

Mr. Skelton asked whether the estimate should prompting a review of the U.S. military force posture, U.S. modernization plans and whether policies should be changed to deal with a near-term threat scenario.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat and chairman of the intelligence committee, said the intelligence showing al Qaeda is regrouping contradicts Mr. Bush’s statements four years ago that al Qaeda was “on the run.”

“The NIE released earlier this month indicates that today our intelligence community believes otherwise,” he said.

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