U.S. Warns Of Stronger Al-Qaeda

By Spencer S. Hsu and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 12, 2007

Six years after the Bush administration declared war on al-Qaeda, the terrorist network is gaining strength and has established a safe haven in remote tribal areas of western Pakistan for training and planning attacks, according to a new Bush administration intelligence report to be discussed today at a White House meeting.

The report, a five-page threat assessment compiled by the National Counterterrorism Center, is titled "Al-Qaida Better Positioned to Strike the West," intelligence officials said. It concludes that the group has significantly rebuilt itself despite concerted U.S. attempts to smash the network.

Although the officials declined to discuss the assessment's content because it is classified, the CIA's deputy director for intelligence, John A. Kringen, told a House committee yesterday that al-Qaeda appears "to be fairly well settled into the safe haven in the ungoverned spaces of Pakistan."

"We see more training. We see more money. We see more communications," Kringen said.

U.S. counterterrorism officials said that the implications for U.S. domestic security are not immediately clear, despite a warning Tuesday by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that reports of heightened al-Qaeda activity and public threats gave him a "gut feeling" that the country faces an increased chance of a terrorist attack this summer.

Chertoff clarified those remarks in a telephone interview yesterday, saying that what he meant to convey was "a more general, strategic sense of the threat environment," based on publicly reported information rather than secret intelligence.

It "was designed to drive strategic or policy actions, not result in some immediate operational step," Chertoff said of his warning in a Chicago Tribune interview, and "to remind people that the best on-the-ground asset we have is individuals' vigilance."

White House spokesman Tony Fratto declined to sound any alarm yesterday. "There continues to be no credible, specific intelligence to suggest that there is an imminent threat to the homeland," he said in response to questions about Chertoff's remarks.

At the same time, authorities worldwide are investigating leads arising out of the failed bombing attempts in London and Glasgow two weeks ago, which British authorities are combing for links to al-Qaeda. Since the attempts, the FBI has assembled a team of agents and analysts to focus on potential summertime threats.

The mixed messages underscore the administration's ongoing struggle to communicate timely security warnings at a time of widespread political controversy over its past handling of terrorism-related intelligence matters.

" 'Gut feeling' doesn't help any of us," said Kerry Sleeper, homeland security adviser to Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R), who has worked for months with federal authorities to improve intelligence sharing as co-chairman of a National Governors Association panel. "A gut feeling is not the way to convey information to hundreds of thousands of first responders across this country that are responsible for identifying, interrupting or responding to a terrorist attack."

"Nearly six years into the war on terrorism, you would hope that we would be basing our security decisions on more than somebody's gut feeling," said Georgetown University terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman.

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