CIA Director George J. Tenet warned Congress yesterday that the threat of al Qaeda terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction is growing and the group continues planning “spectacular attacks” against the United States and its allies.
“Over the last year, we’ve … seen an increase in the threat of more sophisticated chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear capability,” he said. “For this reason, we take very seriously the threat of a [chemical, biological or nuclear] attack.”
Mr. Tenet noted that captured al Qaeda members have said the United States remains the group’s “main enemy,” and al Qaeda’s effort to produce deadly anthrax bacteria is “one of the most immediate” terrorist threats.
He also said al Qaeda remains decentralized and dangerous. “Across the operational spectrum — air, maritime, special weapons — we have time and again uncovered plots that are chilling.”
Mr. Tenet spoke in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he again defended U.S. intelligence agencies from partisan critics who said the CIA and other agencies misread intelligence indicating Iraq had stockpiles of chemical and biological arms.
“I think it’s too early to make judgments about what happened to Iraqi arms stockpiles,” Mr. Tenet said.
“We want to know whether we were right or wrong. We want to know what the disposition of these programs were. We do need to understand whether there was any secondary proliferation, which would be of great concern to us.”
Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and ranking member of the committee, said American credibility was damaged by what he called “the intelligence fiasco” of not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after predicting the arms were there before the war.
“Initiating a war on the basis of faulty or exaggerated intelligence is a very serious matter,” Mr. Levin said. “Life and death decisions are based on intelligence. The fact that intelligence assessments before the war were so wildly off the mark should trouble all Americans.”
In a sharp exchange with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, Mr. Tenet said he did not believe intelligence was misused by the Bush administration to launch the war with Iraq.
Mr. Kennedy said Mr. Tenet failed to correct exaggerated statements made by Vice President Dick Cheney and other policy-makers that the senator said were tantamount to “warmongering.”
Regarding a classified Pentagon intelligence report produced in October 2003 that suggested there were operational links between Saddam Hussein’s government and al Qaeda, Mr. Tenet said the CIA “did not agree with the way the data was characterized in that document.”
Mr. Tenet said the relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda included “contacts, training and safe haven,” as well as help for al Qaeda collaborator Abu Musaab Zarqawi, his role in the assassination of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan and operations in Baghdad.
On the terrorists’ pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear arms, Mr. Tenet said networks of people are helping terrorists with scientific knowledge and their hunt for material in areas stretching from the Near East to Europe.
Osama bin Laden has said that to acquire chemical, germ or nuclear arms is a religious obligation, and in addition to al Qaeda, more than two dozen terrorist groups are seeking chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials, Mr. Tenet said.