CIA Chief Tenet: Threat Info 'Most Specific to Date'
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2003 The information that prompted national security leaders to raise the nationwide threat level to "high" last week is the "most specific we have seen," Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet said today.
"The intelligence is not idle chatter on the part of terrorists and their associates," Tenet told members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The threat level was raised in response to specific information that points to plots for terrorist attacks as soon as mid-February, in conjunction with the end of the Muslim holy period of Haj.
The plots involve two main areas, the United States and within the Arabian Peninsula and could involve "the use of a radiological dispersal device as well as poisons and chemicals," Tenet said.
He credited improvements made in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with providing an enhanced awareness of al Qaeda operations. In this case and others like it, he said, raising the threat level is the right thing to do for many reasons.
"Enhanced security that results from a higher-level threat can buy us more time to operate against the individuals who are plotting to do us harm," Tenet said. "And heightened vigilance generates additional information and leads."
Intelligence and law enforcement assets have made considerable strides in the war on terrorism. Tenet noted one-third of the top al Qaeda leadership identified before the war has been killed or captured, "including the operations chief of the Persian Gulf area who planned the bombing of the USS Cole; the key planner who was Mohammed Atta's confidant and conspirator in the 9-11 attacks; a major al Qaeda leader in Yemen; and key operatives and facilitators in the Gulf area and other regions including South Asia and Southeast Asia."
More than 3,000 suspected al Qaeda operatives have been detained worldwide, with more than 100 countries involved in the captures.
"Al Qaeda's loss with Afghanistan, the death and capture of key personnel and its year spent mostly on the run have impaired its ability, complicated its command and control, and disrupted its logistics," Tenet said. "That said, the continuing threat remains clear: Al Qaeda is still dedicated to striking the U.S. homeland, and much of the information we've received in the past year revolves around that goal."
More than 600 people around the world died in terrorist attacks last year, including more than 200 from attacks by al Qaeda. Terrorists struck tourists in Bali, Indonesia, and Mombasa, Kenya; U.S. Marines in Kuwait; and a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen.
The director spoke of "disturbing signs" al Qaeda is regrouping in Iran, Iraq and the hinterlands along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
"We know from the events of Sept. 11 that we can never again ignore a specific type of country: a country unable to control its own borders and internal territory, lacking the capacity to govern, educate its people or provide fundamental societal services," he said. "Such countries can, however, offer extremists a place to congregate in relative safety."
Al Qaeda is likely to seek targets that will achieve multiple objectives, such as striking national landmarks, inflicting mass casualties and causing economic disruption, he said. But even if they don't find an opportunity for a major attack, the terrorists are likely to attack "softer" targets, or those with less security.
Al Qaeda is also "developing and refining new means of attacks," including using surface-to-air missiles, poisons, and air, surface and underwater methods to strike maritime targets.
"This latest reporting underscores the threat the al Qaeda network continues to pose to the United States," Tenet said. "The network is extensive and adaptable. It will take years of determined effort to unravel this and other terrorist networks and stamp them out."
Also testifying at today's hearing were FBI Director Robert Mueller and Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, USN, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.