Archive for Wednesday, February 6, 2002

CIA chief says al-Qaida network most serious threat to U.S.

February 6, 2002

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— CIA Director George Tenet told Congress on Wednesday that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror group remains the most immediate and serious threat facing the United States, interested in striking any "high-profile" target including possibly the upcoming Olympics.

The U.S.-led war on terrorism has resulted in the arrests of nearly 1,000 al-Qaida operatives in more than 60 countries worldwide. But "I must repeat, al-Qaida has not yet been destroyed," Tenet told a Senate committee.

Terrorists have considered attacks in the U.S. against high-profile government or private facilities, famous landmarks and U.S. airports, bridges, harbors and dams, Tenet said.

The CIA director said "high-profile events such as the Olympics or last weekend's Super Bowl also fit the terrorists' interests in striking another blow within the United States that would command worldwide media attention."

Security officials at the Olympics have said they are not aware of any specific threat to the games.

Tenet, in his first public testimony since the Sept. 11 attacks, faced tough questions from members of the Senate Intelligence Committee about the agency's inability to foresee those attacks.

"Why were we utterly unaware of the planning and execution of the Sept. 11 attacks? In other words, what went wrong?" asked Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.

Bristling at the suggestion of failure, Tenet said the U.S. intelligence team has "a record of discipline, strategy, focus and action. We're proud of that record. We've been at war with al-Qaida for over five years."

The CIA had known that terrorists might be planning attacks against U.S. interests last summer, and knew "in broad terms" that bin Laden might attack targets inside the United States, Tenet said. But the CIA had no specific knowledge pointing to the Sept. 11 attacks against the World Trade Center or Pentagon before they happened, he said.

The CIA did thwart attacks on three or four U.S. facilities overseas last summer, Tenet said  and has disrupted "numerous terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, and we will continue to do so."

But he said, "There will be nothing we do that will guarantee 100 percent certainty. It will never happen."

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told Tenet that Americans, as they sit chatting in cafes, want to know why, if American Taliban John Walker Lindh could meet bin Laden, the CIA couldn't get an agent near him.

Tenet shot back tautly: "You'd better tell everybody at the cafe that it's not true." He declined to elaborate.

The CIA director refused to say, in the public committee session, what the CIA knows about bin Laden's whereabouts.

He said documents recovered by U.S. forces inside Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban show that bin Laden was pursuing "a sophisticated biological weapons research program," and the terrorist organization also has shown an interest in chemical, nuclear and radiological weapons.

The United States also faces a threat from the connection between terrorists and other enemies of the United States who have or are pursuing weapons of mass destruction  what President Bush outlined in his State of the Union as "the axis of evil."

And, Tenet said, the United States would "overlook at our own peril the impact of crisis in remote parts of the world," such as Somalia, Indonesia and Colombia.

Iran remains "a serious concern because of its across the board pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile capabilities," Tenet said.

And the United States believes Iraq is still trying to develop nuclear weapons. "We believe Saddam Hussein never abandoned his nuclear weapons program," Tenet said.

North Korea also continues to sell to nations including Iran, Libya and Syria, Tenet said.

Russia appears to be "the first choice of nations seeking nuclear technology and training," Tenet said, continuing to provide Iran, for example, with assistance in developing a nuclear reactor for commercial use.

Nevertheless, Tenet called "promising" Russia's recent warming of relations with the United States.

China also remains a key supplier of nuclear technology and missiles, he said.

Tenet was joined by senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials from the FBI, Pentagon and State Department for his testimony.

U.S. intelligence routinely tracks Russia, China and North Korea's efforts to sell missile and other weapons technology to countries that present a potential threat to the United States.

Some of these are overt weapons technology transfers, but some assistance comes in "dual-use" forms  equipment that has a benign purpose but can also be used to create weapons.

Tenet pointed to Russia's assistance with an Iranian nuclear reactor as an example of this. Officials have said this aid can ultimately improve Iran's prospects to develop a nuclear weapon.

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