Senior U.S. intelligence leaders told Congress yesterday that “it may only be a matter of time” before terrorists try to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States.
In his first public appearance since becoming CIA director in September, Porter J. Goss used the annual worldwide threat hearing to issue the prediction, while another federal official said the FBI knows little about al Qaeda sleeper cells such as the September 11 terrorists.
“It may be only a matter of time before al Qaeda or another group attempts to use chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons,” Mr. Goss told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III testified that he is “very concerned” about the lack of data on a network of al Qaeda “sleeper” cells in the United States.
“Finding them is a top priority for the FBI, but it is also one of the most difficult challenges,” he said.
“Because of al Qaeda’s directed efforts this year to infiltrate covert operatives into the U.S., I am also very concerned with the growing body of sensitive reporting that continues to show al Qaeda’s clear intention to obtain and ultimately use some form of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear or high-energy explosives material in its attacks against America,” Mr. Mueller added.
In a related development, a National Intelligence Council (NIC) report made public yesterday stated that terrorists have targeted Russian nuclear weapons storage sites.
In 2002, Russian authorities twice thwarted terrorist efforts to monitor nuclear-weapons storage sites, the report said. Chechen terrorists also have conducted surveillance of Russian rail stations and a train used to move nuclear bombs, said the report from NIC, an analysis group under Mr. Goss.
The report noted that Russian authorities could not have recovered “all the [nuclear] material reportedly stolen.”
“We assess that undetected smuggling has occurred, and we are concerned about the total amount of material that could have been diverted or stolen in the last 13 years,” the report said.
Asked by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, about the report, Mr. Goss said he could not say whether terrorists had stolen nuclear material from Russian nuclear facilities.
Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the subcommittee that al Qaeda has said that it wants to conduct an attack “exceeding the destruction” of the September 11, 2001, strikes, raising fears about the terror organization’s use of chemical, biological and nuclear arms.
Adm. Jacoby said al Qaeda and other terrorists are likely to use deadly biological weapons, such as ricin or botulinum toxin, or industrial chemicals.
Mr. Mueller said the United States is “awash” in potential terrorist targets, including the White House, the Capitol, nuclear power plants, mass-transit systems, bridges and tunnels, shipping and port facilities, financial centers and airports.
An attack on such targets “would cause both mass casualties and a crippling effect on our economy,” Mr. Mueller said.
Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and the committee chairman, said after the hearing that al Qaeda’s use of weapons of mass destruction is a major fear.
“It’s probably our biggest worry,” he said.
Coast Guard Adm. James Loy, who was acting homeland security secretary until Tuesday’s swearing-in of Michael Chertoff, told the committee that recent information showed “al Qaeda has considered using the Southwest border to infiltrate the United States.”
“Several al Qaeda leaders believe operatives can pay their way into the country through Mexico, and also believe illegal entry is more advantageous than legal entry for operational security reasons,” Adm. Loy said.
Other threats outlined during the Senate hearing included the growing danger of North Korea’s nuclear program and its export of missiles and other weapons, and Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons.
Mr. Goss said the Iranians think nuclear weapons are a matter of national pride and are motivated in part by Pakistan’s acquisition of such arms.
Adm. Jacoby said the Iranians want to deploy nuclear arms as a regional deterrent force. Unless its program is curbed by international controls, Tehran likely will be able to produce nuclear weapons by the early 2010s, he said.
Adm. Jacoby also said North Korea is not expected to give up all of its nuclear arms capabilities even if an agreement is reached with Pyongyang.