- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 13, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — America’s top two intelligence officials on Tuesday said al Qaeda is weaker and U.S. intelligence agencies smarter since the Sept. 11 attacks — but the terrorists are nowhere near to giving up.

In his first week on the job, CIA Director David H. Petraeus said al Qaeda’s recent losses of Osama bin Laden and others has opened “an important window of vulnerability” to exploit.

In remarks to a joint congressional intelligence committee hearing, Mr. Petraeus predicted al Qaeda leaders may even flee to Afghanistan or leave South Asia altogether to escape the CIA, which has quadrupled covert drone strikes against al Qaeda under the Obama administration.

But Mr. Petraeus and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper both said al Qaeda’s Yemeni offshoots and others are growing more daring and dangerous — a sentiment seconded by senators and congressmen in their opening remarks.

Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, who is chairman of the House’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, warned against dismissing new al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as “feckless” and dismissed suggestions that “the threat of terrorism has significantly waned,” saying he feared Americans becoming complacent.

“Are we safer today? I say yes,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said. “More than one-half of al Qaeda’s top leadership has been eliminated. … Virtually every major al Qaeda affiliate has lost a key leader.”

But she warned that “there is a metastasizing set of groups,” including militants in Pakistan and Yemen, that use everything from small arms to launch attacks to explosives planted in printer cartridges.

Mr. Clapper and Mrs. Feinstein both complimented the FBI’s shift to strengthen its counterterrorist arm.

Mr. Rogers introduced a new concept for the much-maligned role of director of national intelligence, calling for the DNI to become an “enabler” rather than a top-down leader, who helps marshal resources but then can stand aside to allow others “to find, fix and finish the target.”

Two demonstrators from Code Pink, the anti-war group, held up signs denouncing the CIA’s covert drone war against militants in Pakistan.

The Obama administration has quadrupled drone attacks since the previous administration. Former top counterterror official Michael Leiter has called the drone strikes “the single most effective tool against the group.”

Mr. Petraeus and his staff ignored the outburst, and the demonstrators were allowed to stay in the committee room.

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