WASHINGTON -- Six years after the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil, the U.S. is in many ways unprepared to stop another major strike against the homeland, which al-Qaida appears intent on carrying out in the near future, four of the nation's top counterterrorism officials told Congress yesterday.
Al-Qaida's intentions have been underscored in recent days by the disruption of suspected terrorist plots in Germany and Denmark, the first videotaped propaganda tape by Osama bin Laden in three years and persistent intelligence showing that the terrorist organization has regrouped in Pakistan and is actively training operatives to launch attacks worldwide.
Al-Qaida's media arm said yesterday that it was preparing to release a second bin Laden tape, in which he is expected to again taunt President Bush and his other pursuers, and praise those responsible for the attacks on New York and Washington.
"Our counterterrorism efforts have disrupted some of the enemy's plans and diminished certain capabilities," John Scott Redd, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "But the events of the last days and the last weeks clearly demonstrate the clear and present danger which continues to exist."
During more than three hours of prepared testimony and questioning, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Redd said significant progress has been made in deterring another attack on the scale of Sept. 11, which killed nearly 3,000 people.
U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts against terrorist targets have drastically improved, in part because of expanded post-Sept. 11 electronic surveillance powers, including those overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, McConnell said.
McConnell told lawmakers U.S. electronic intercepts were instrumental in helping thwart a terrorist plot last week in Germany.
McConnell said some of those capabilities were the result of a "temporary fix" in the FISA law passed by Congress last month in an attempt to maintain the surveillance system while addressing some of its legal problems. He said he believes that FISA itself is in jeopardy due to concerns that intelligence officials are "spying on Americans, doing data-mining and so on," which he said was "simply not true."
Redd testified to other successes over the past six years, saying authorities have taken thousands of terrorists off the streets and disrupted dozens of plots. He also said Washington is working more closely with allies overseas.
All four of the witnesses conceded under questioning that gaps remain in America's safety net despite billions of dollars spent.
McConnell said "there are still significant cultural issues" that hinder the sharing of information needed to thwart an attack. And, he said, the various intelligence agencies "still have some distance to go" in hiring and training analysts and case officers who speak key foreign languages such as Arabic and Urdu.
Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times.