America's top two intelligence officials said Tuesday that al-Qaida is weaker and U.S. intelligence agencies are smarter since the Sept. 11 attacks _ but the terrorists are nowhere near giving up.
In his first week on the job, CIA director David Petraeus told members of Congress that al-Qaida's recent losses of Osama bin Laden and others have opened "an important window of vulnerability."
Petraeus predicted that al-Qaida leaders may even flee to Afghanistan or leave South Asia altogether to escape the CIA, which has quadrupled covert drone strikes against al-Qaida under the Obama administration. He testified at a joint congressional intelligence committee hearing.
Petraeus and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, both said that al-Qaida's Yemeni offshoots and others are growing more daring and dangerous _ a sentiment shared by lawmakers.
The chairman of the House intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, R-Mich., warned against dismissing new al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as "feckless" and dismissed suggestions that "the threat of terrorism has significantly waned." He said he feared Americans becoming complacent.
"Are we safer today? I say yes," said Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the head of the Senate's intelligence committee. Tuesday was the first combined hearing since Congress' joint inquiry into the 2001 terrorist attacks. "More than one-half of al-Qaida's top leadership has been eliminated. ... Virtually every major al-Qaida affiliate has lost a key leader."
But Feinstein warned that "there is a metastasizing set of groups," including militants in Pakistan and Yemen, that uses everything from small arms to explosives disguised in printer cartridges.
At a separate event Tuesday at the National Defense University, the Pentagon's undersecretary for defense intelligence, Michael Vickers, agreed that the U.S. was safer, thanks to what he called "the most precise campaign in the history of warfare" against al-Qaida. He said of eight of the group's top 20 leaders were killed this year alone, chief among them, Osama bin Laden.
He predicted that with sustained counterterrorist operations, "within 18-24 months, core al-Qaida's cohesion and operational capabilities could be degraded to the point that the group could fragment and exist mostly as a propaganda arm."
Vickers has been key in helping coordinate the covert war carried out by special operations forces together with the CIA, FBI and other elements of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement.
That close cooperation raised eyebrows regarding another issue that was discussed at the omnibus intelligence hearing _ namely, the CIA's assistance to the New York Police Department that was the subject of an eight-month investigation by The Associated Press.
Petraeus disclosed that the CIA's inspector general is investigating whether the CIA broke any laws, saying they wanted to "just ensure that we are doing the right thing."
Petraeus faced questioning on the use of harsh interrogation techniques like water-boarding, used by the Bush administration. He said while he did not support such techniques, he indicated it was time to stop investigating CIA interrogators who then employed them.
"Now it is time to take the rear mirror off the bus and look forward ... and move on," Petraeus said.