CIA Director George Tenet said yesterday that al Qaeda terrorist attacks remain a real threat, with cells working secretly around the world on new and more deadly strikes.
“Al Qaeda’s leaders still at large are working to reconstitute the organization and resume its terrorist operations,” Mr. Tenet said in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“We must be prepared for a long war, and we must not falter,” he said.
Terrorists have planned high-profile strikes on government and private facilities, landmarks and infrastructure such as airports, harbors and dams, he said.
“High-profile events, such as the Olympics or last weekend’s Super Bowl, also fit the terrorists’ interest in striking another blow within the United States that would command worldwide media attention,” Mr. Tenet said.
The CIA director also said al Qaeda, the Islamic militant group led by Osama bin Laden, has ties to Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government.
Iraq and al Qaeda have a common aim in their opposition to the United States and the Saudi Arabian monarchy, suggesting “tactical cooperation between them is possible, even though Saddam is well aware that such activity would carry serious consequences,” Mr. Tenet said.
Iraqi links to al Qaeda were raised by the Czech Republic last year after Czech intelligence uncovered a meeting in Prague between an Iraqi intelligence agent and Mohamed Atta, believed to be the operations chief for the September 11 attacks.
Since September 11, almost 1,000 al Qaeda terrorists in more than 60 nations have been arrested and the group’s training structure in Afghanistan has been dismantled, Mr. Tenet said.
In a detailed briefing on national security threats, Mr. Tenet, flanked by intelligence chiefs from the FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency and State Department, outlined the key dangers:
Al Qaeda is working on “multiple-attack plans” and putting cells in place to carry them out.
Terrorists could attack U.S. nuclear plants or chemical industry sites using conventional means “to cause widespread toxic or radiological damage.”
Iran continues to support terrorist groups and has sent arms to Palestinian terrorists and the group Hezbollah.
“Tehran also has failed to move decisively against al Qaeda members who have relocated to Iran from Afghanistan,” Mr. Tenet said.
Attacks could be launched by al Qaeda cells in major European and Middle Eastern cities, and al Qaeda is connected with groups in Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia and the Philippines.
There are fears al Qaeda and other terrorists will attack using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
“Terrorist groups worldwide have ready access to information on chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons via the Internet, and we know that al Qaeda was working to acquire some of the most dangerous chemical agents and toxins,” Mr. Tenet said.
Terrorists could attempt to attack the United States by conducting cyber-strikes designed to cripple U.S. electronic-based infrastructures.
Tensions between India and Pakistan remain high over a Dec. 13 terrorist attack in India, and the two nations could resort to nuclear weapons. “We are deeply concerned that a conventional war, once begun, could escalate into a nuclear confrontation,” Mr. Tenet said.
The CIA director, appearing in public for the first time since September 11, also defended the U.S. intelligence community from charges that it failed to anticipate and prevent the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Mr. Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he welcomed congressional inquiries into “our record on terrorism.”
“It is a record of discipline, strategy, focus and action,” Mr. Tenet said. “We’re proud of that record.”
Sen. Richard Shelby, Alabama Republican, asked Mr. Tenet how American intelligence agencies could be “utterly unaware” that terrorists were planning the September 11 attacks.
Mr. Tenet responded that intelligence agencies suspected an attack by al Qaeda inside the United States but lacked details of when or where they would take place.
“The shock was where it occurred, not the fact that the attack occurred,” Mr. Tenet said.
In the spring and summer of 2001, “we saw [speculative] threat reporting about massive casualties against the United States,” Mr. Tenet said.
“These threat reportings had very little texture with regard to what was occurring inside the United States,” he said. “We again launched a massive disruption effort. We know that we stopped three or four American facilities from being bombed overseas. We know we saved many American lives.”
“We never had the texture that said the day, time and place of the event inside the United States would result in September 11. It was not the result of the failure of attention and discipline and focus and consistent effort, and the American people need to understand that.”
Mr. Shelby said the CIA has a “rocky history of intelligence failures,” including the 1996 bombing of a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia, terrorist bombings in 1998 of U.S. embassies, the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
“Examined individually, each of these failures, tragic in their own way, may not suggest a continuing or systemic problem,” Mr. Shelby said. “But, however, taken as a whole, and culminating with the events of September the 11th, they present a disturbing series of intelligence shortfalls that I believe expose some serious problems in the structure of and approaches taken by our intelligence community.”
Dale Watson, the FBI’s counterterrorism chief, said the FBI has opened “hundreds” of investigations on suspected al Qaeda terrorists or supporters since September 11.
The 19 hijackers who carried out the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks entered the United States legally and were not known to any of the FBI’s sources, Mr. Watson said. “There were no contacts with anybody we were looking at,” he said.
The 19 Middle Eastern terrorists all young men from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon also fit the profile of some 70,000 people who entered the United States since 1999, Mr. Watson said, noting that conducting investigations of terrorists is “a huge problem.”
Mr. Tenet said the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missile-delivery systems is a serious danger.
Russia, China and North Korea are the main suppliers, with Russia helping Iran’s nuclear and long-range missile program; China supplying missile goods to Pakistan and Iran; and North Korea selling missiles to Iran, Egypt, Syria and Libya.