Obama administration figures took to Sunday’s political talk shows to rebut charges of White House weakness on Islamist terrorism, with the nation’s top diplomat saying such networks pose the greatest threat to national security.
While one of the White House’s top national security advisers criticized lawmakers for politicizing national security threats, including the Christmas Day attack over Detroit, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said even a nuclear-armed North Korea or Iran isn’t as great a threat to the U.S. as al Qaeda and allied jihad groups.
“The biggest nightmare that any of us have is that one of these terrorist member organizations within this syndicate of terror will get their hands on a weapon of mass destruction,” she said in a Sunday appearance on CNN. “So that’s really the most threatening prospect we see.”
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair told Congress earlier this month he was “certain” there will be an attempted terrorist attack on the United States within the next six months.
Also on Sunday, Iran threw down another gauntlet against international sanctions on its nuclear development, saying it will start Tuesday to enrich uranium to six times the nuclear purity usually used in civilian nuclear power plants, a step toward producing uranium pure enough to use in a nuclear weapon.
While Mrs. Clinton acknowledged that “obviously, a nuclear-armed country like North Korea or Iran pose both a real or a potential threat,” she said the terror threat is greater and, unlike some recent Obama administration figures, specified that threat in terms specific to Islam, though not the Muslim religion itself.
“But I think that most of us believe the greater threats are the transnational non-state networks, primarily the extremists, the fundamentalist Islamic extremists who are connected — al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, al Qaeda in the Maghreb [region of North Africa],” she said.
The Obama administration has drawn considerable criticism from Republicans and conservatives for downplaying the terror threat as if it were a law enforcement or disaster operation. The charge was emphasized most recently by newly elected Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who ridiculed granting foreign terrorists Miranda rights and other protections that civilians have in U.S. criminal courts.
“Quite frankly, I’m tiring of politicians using national security issues such as terrorism as a political football,” deputy national security adviser John O. Brennan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “They’re going out there, they’re unknowing of the facts and they’re making charges and allegations that are not anchored in reality.”
Mr. Brennan also denounced as opportunistic the Republican attacks on reading Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Detroit-bound airliner bombing suspect, his rights to an attorney and against self-incrimination — the well-known Miranda warning. He said he briefed four top Hill Republicans on Christmas night on Mr. Abdulmutallab and informed them that he was in FBI custody.
“They knew that in FBI custody that there is a process as far as Mirandizing,” he said. “None of those individuals raised any concerns … at that point.”
Mr. Brennan said he spoke with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner and Republican intelligence committee members Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri and Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan.
Since then, many Republicans have questioned whether Mr. Abdulmutallab would have given U.S. authorities more information had he not had access to an attorney.
In response, Mr. Hoekstra repeated his criticism of the administration’s handling of recent security threats.
“Can anyone take seriously the White House’s assertion that it consulted with Republicans when President Obama didn’t even consult his own director of national intelligence, FBI director or homeland security director concerning Abdulmutallab?” he said in a statement. “The mishandling of this case is the Obama administration’s failure and they have no one to blame but themselves.”
Mr. Brennan said politicians are merely second-guessing counterterrorism officials with a “500-mile screwdriver” from Washington.
He said Mr. Abdulmutallab was treated just like other terrorism suspects arrested in the United States — under guidelines established in December 2008 by the George W. Bush administration. After the Christmas Day attempted airliner attack, Mr. Obama asked that those guidelines be re-examined.
But on Sunday, Iran had a new challenge for the West, announcing that will begin enriching uranium to a 20 percent “strength” of uranium-235. Uranium found in nature is less than 1 percent of the uranium-235 isotope, the compound suitable for use in a nuclear device. Uranium fuel for commercial nuclear plants is usually “enriched” to 3 or 4 percent uranium-235; weapons-grade uranium is about 90 percent uranium-235.
The development Tuesday confused — but did not surprise — Western officials, coming just days after Tehran appeared to be more accepting of an international plan to send its uranium for enrichment abroad.
After being directed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Tehran will inform the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Monday that “the higher enrichment will begin at the Natanz plant.”
Western officials immediately condemned Iran’s plans, with Britain saying such a move would violate Security Council resolutions.
“If the international community will stand together and bring pressure on the Iranian government, I believe there is still time for sanctions and pressure to work. But we must all work together,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said during a visit to Rome.
In October, the IAEA proposed that Iran’s low-enriched uranium be sent abroad for further enrichment, so it can be used to make medical isotopes — the only reason Tehran insists it needs it.
Mr. Ahmadinejad demanded instead that Iran’s low-enriched uranium be exchanged for 20 percent fuel simultaneously on Iranian soil, which the West rejected. Last week, however, he suggested for the first time that he might be willing to accept the original proposal.
Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that Iran’s Sunday decision underlines the need for new U.N. sanctions.
“With this move, Iran is only escalating the situation over its nuclear activities into a crisis,” Mr. Berman said. “It should be abundantly clear to all that Tehran is not interested in a diplomatic resolution on anything other than its own terms, which will inevitably lead to a nuclear weapons capability. This is another reason for the U.N. Security Council to act swiftly so that strong sanctions can be placed on Tehran.”
Mrs. Clinton defended the administration’s repeated offers to engage with Iran over its nuclear program despite their futility, saying its overtures helped persuade other countries that all options short of more sanctions have been exhausted.
“When we started last year talking about the threats that Iran’s nuclear program posed, Russia and other countries said, ‘Well, we don’t see it that way,’” she said.
Although Russia has moved closer to the West’s position, China remains vocally opposed to new sanctions. The U.N. Security Council adopted three rounds of sanctions during the past two years of the Bush administration.