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.
An aide to Chertoff declined to say if the secretary's warning was based in part on the new intelligence report. On Tuesday, Chertoff cited al-Qaeda's revived activity, recent threats and attacks the past three summers as a reason to worry that "we are in a period of increased vulnerability." But on a list of 32 suspected al-Qaeda attacks since 1995 compiled by the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, nine occurred from June to September.
Chertoff's warning was not matched by an increase in the domestic security threat level, using the government's often-criticized color-coded advisory system. His department's posted threat level is at "yellow," or elevated, for the country as a whole and at "orange," or high, for the aviation industry, where it has been since August.
Several federal officials, along with counterterrorism authorities in New York City and Los Angeles, said they had picked up recent evidence of suspicious activity in the United States and some intercepted e-mail communications by al-Qaeda members and sympathizers about a possible attack here. None of these threats has been deemed credible, they added.
A U.S. counterterrorism official said the new intelligence report, whose existence was first reported by the Associated Press, did "not really" differ from recent statements by Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell; his predecessor, John D. Negroponte; and CIA Director Michael V. Hayden.
Those officials have cited heightened concerns that al-Qaeda is regrouping, reorganizing and -- based on recent threats delivered by Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri -- increasingly confident of its ability to conduct similar relatively low-scale attacks against U.S. or other Western targets.
While asserting that al-Qaeda is still considerably weaker than it was before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the new report concludes that the group is stronger than it has been in years. "There is heightened concern given al-Qaeda's operational activity [and] . . . operational levels" along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the U.S. official said.
Appearing at the same hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Robert Cardillo, the Defense Intelligence Agency's deputy director for analysis, traced al-Qaeda's resurgence in Pakistan to an agreement last year that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made with the tribal chiefs when he withdrew army units from the northwest area.
In return, the tribal leaders were to prevent the Taliban, bin Laden and al-Qaeda from carrying out training and sending terrorists and arms into Afghanistan and elsewhere. But, Cardillo said: "At the end of the day, we see a worse condition than [there] was before the agreement."
Citing news reports about the intelligence assessment, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement that "it is a travesty that Osama bin Laden remains at large . . . and appears to have found new sanctuary to operate freely in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions." Several House lawmakers at the hearing also expressed frustration that the Pakistani government, despite receiving billions of dollars in U.S. aid, has been unable in the past five years to capture or kill the al-Qaeda leaders.
Thomas Fingar, deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, responded that al-Qaeda's security precautions for its top leaders are "very good," and in the tribal areas "they're in an environment that is more hostile to us than it is to al-Qaeda." He added that "the appeal of the ideology . . . exceeds the appeal of money or any other blandishment that we've been able to offer" to local tribal leaders who in some cases have protected al-Qaeda members.
"It's not that we lack the ability to go into that space," Fingar said, "but we have chosen not to do so without the permission of the Pakistani government." Attempts by Pakistan army units last year to capture or kill bin Laden with the assistance of CIA officers and U.S. Army Special Forces had been "costly for [Pakistan's] security forces and has caused the government concern over tribal rebellion and a backlash by sympathetic Islamic political parties," Fingar said.
He added that "sooner or later, you have to quit permitting them [al-Qaeda] to have a safe haven there," and he warned that "it is not too great an exaggeration to say there is some risk of turning a problem in northwest Pakistan into the problem of all of Pakistan."
Staff writers Dan Eggen and Joby Warrick and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.