Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The al Qaeda terrorist group still is planning to attack the White House and Congress — targets the group missed on September 11 — and a growing extremist Muslim movement is threatening the United States, the directors of the FBI and CIA told Congress yesterday.

“There are strong indications that al Qaeda will revisit missed targets until they succeed, such as they did with the World Trade Center,” FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “And the list of missed targets now includes both the White House as well as the Capitol.”

Mr. Mueller said al Qaeda is seeking to obtain nuclear, chemical and biological weapons for attacks on targets that also include transportation systems, such as subways, bridges in major cities and airliners.

CIA Director George J. Tenet told the committee that al Qaeda has been weakened but it has “infected” other radical groups with its ideology that depicts the “United States as Islam’s greatest foe.”

“The steady growth of Osama bin Laden’s anti-American sentiment through the wider Sunni extremist movement and the broad dissemination of al Qaeda’s destructive expertise ensure that a serious threat will remain for the foreseeable future, with or without al Qaeda in the picture,” Mr. Tenet said in his annual assessment of global threats.

Mr. Tenet said al Qaeda is continuing to recruit pilots and to evade new security measures in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

“Even catastrophic attacks on the scale of 9/11 remain within al Qaeda’s reach,” he said. “Make no mistake, these plots are hatched abroad, but they target U.S. soil and those of our allies.”

Dozens of splinter groups have been identified, including the network headed by Iraqi Abu Zarqawi, the Ansar al-Islam network in Iraq, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the senators he is concerned about stability in the Islamic world.

“Many of our partners successfully weathered domestic stresses during Operation Iraqi Freedom,” he said. “However, challenges to their stability and their continued support for the war on terrorism remain. Islamic and Arab populations are increasingly opposed to U.S. policies. The loss of a key leader could quickly change government support for U.S. and coalition operations.”

He said Iraq has the potential to become a training ground for the next generation of terrorists if it is “left unchecked,” and that al Qaeda members have carried out some of the most deadly attacks on coalition forces in Iraq.

In wide-ranging testimony on threats, the intelligence leaders also said:

• Iraq’s stocks of weapons of mass destruction still may be hidden inside the country or were secretly moved abroad.

• North Korea is trying to use its nuclear weapons capability as a bargaining chip in regional talks and to gain legitimacy and influence.

• China is continuing an aggressive missile modernization program targeted against Taiwan that includes both cruise and ballistic missiles. “Our greatest concern remains China’s military buildup, which continues to accelerate,” Mr. Tenet said.

• Russian weapons of mass destruction materials remain vulnerable to theft or diversion.

The committee’s public session comes after months of scrutiny of the intelligence community’s prewar and so-far faulty estimates that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq.

“The question I am wrestling with is whether in fact we are as a country and as a people safer today than we were when the three of you were here a year ago,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, said in opening statements, speaking to Mr. Tenet, Mr. Mueller and Adm. Jacoby.

A half-dozen committee members ignored a suggestion made at the opening of the hearing by Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and committee chairman, that they focus on current threats around the world and not on the issue of flawed prewar intelligence.

They quoted from intelligence reports, compared them with assertions President Bush and others made about the need for war in Iraq and questioned parts of a speech Mr. Tenet gave recently at Georgetown University in defense of his intelligence agency.

Mr. Tenet’s response was: “We’re not perfect. But we’re pretty damned good at what we do.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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