WASHINGTON — Six years after the deadliest terrorist attacks on American soil, the United States is in many ways unprepared to stop another major strike against the homeland, which Al Qaeda appears intent on carrying out in the near future, four of the nation's top counter- terrorism officials told a Senate panel Monday.
Al Qaeda's intentions have been underscored in recent days by the disruption of suspected terrorist plots in Germany and Denmark, the first propaganda video by Osama bin Laden in three years, and persistent intelligence showing that Al Qaeda has regrouped in a Pakistan haven and is training operatives there for attacks worldwide.
Al Qaeda's media arm said Monday that it was preparing to release a second Bin Laden tape. He is expected to again taunt President Bush and other pursuers, and praise those responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Our counter-terrorism efforts have disrupted some of the enemy's plans and diminished certain capabilities," John Scott Redd, the director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center, told the Senate 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."
In more than three hours of prepared testimony and questioning, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Redd said significant progress had been made in deterring another attack on the scale of Sept. 11, which killed nearly 3,000 people.
McConnell said counter- terrorism intelligence-gathering was much improved, in part due to expanded post-Sept. 11 electronic surveillance powers, including those under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Confirming a Times report, McConnell told the committee that U.S. electronic intercepts helped in last week's thwarting of an alleged terrorist plot in Germany involving militants trained in camps run by Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Jihad Union.
The surveillance "allowed us to see and understand all the connections" to Al Qaeda, McConnell said. "Because we could understand it, we could help our partners through a long process of monitoring and observation, realizing that the perpetrators had actually obtained explosive liquids."
After the hearing, Redd confirmed that U.S. intercepts played a central role in disrupting a suspected "major" plot in Denmark. Eight alleged Al Qaeda affiliates were arrested.
McConnell said that at least some of the intercepts in the German plot were made possible by a "temporary fix" to the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act, in which Congress tried last month to maintain the surveillance system while addressing some legal issues. After the hearing, McConnell appeared to clarify his remarks in an interview with reporters, saying FISA was used in the German case even before the law was changed.
During the hearing, McConnell said he thought the act itself was in jeopardy due to concerns that intelligence officials were "spying on Americans, doing data-mining and so on," which he said was "simply not true."
"If we lose FISA, we will lose, in my estimate, 50% of our ability to track, understand and know about these terrorists -- what they're doing to train, what they're doing to recruit and what they're doing to try to get into this country," he said.
Redd testified of other successes over the last six years, saying authorities had taken thousands of terrorists off streets and battlefields and disrupted dozens of plots.
"All of this means to me that we are safer today than we were on September the 11th, 2001," said Redd, a retired Navy vice admiral, like McConnell. "But we are not safe, and nor are we likely to be for a generation or more. We're in a long war; we face an enemy that is adaptable, dangerous and persistent."
The officials described their fears about how Al Qaeda, its affiliates and terrorists from Europe and perhaps the U.S. were exploiting gaps in the safety net. They cited the recent National Intelligence Estimate, which said Al Qaeda continued to focus on "prominent political, economic and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear in the U.S. population."
All four of the witnesses conceded under questioning that weaknesses remained despite the billions spent on counter-terrorism and domestic security.
McConnell said "significant cultural issues" still hindered the information-sharing necessary to stop an attack. And 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, he said.
Some senators were far more critical than their witnesses.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said a failure to track individuals who overstayed their visas was "particularly shocking and troubling to me." He also said there were "huge gaps" in the security of the nation's food supply.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) said the nation urgently needed a national ID card program so that potential terrorists would not be able to use forged or fake identification. The counter- terrorism officials agreed.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said: "We are safer, but there are still gaping holes.
"There are still major problems, whether it's communication, whether it's technology, whether it's the struggle for ideas that we seem to be failing at around the world, whether it's our image in the moderate Muslim world and how that is undermining the ultimate struggle we have -- which is the radicalism that we find in some parts of the Muslim world."