By Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
The U.S. government is better prepared to disrupt terrorist plots than it was six years ago, but the country continues to face a serious terrorism threat that could persist for a generation, top intelligence and counterterrorism officials testified yesterday.
"We are in a long war, and our enemy is determined and dangerous," said John Scott Redd, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, sounding a key theme from a Senate committee hearing assessing the nation's preparedness on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The officials -- including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III -- credited post-Sept. 11 security improvements with preventing major new attacks in the United States. But they also warned against complacency. "The biggest challenge to us is not to lose the sense of urgency that animated all of us in the weeks and months after September 11," Chertoff said.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people exposed gaping holes in the nation's terrorism defenses, including failures by intelligence and law enforcement agencies to share information. In their testimony, the four officials said that the government is better at collecting and analyzing intelligence, and that federal agencies have broken down many of the barriers that hampered communication.
"We have come a long way over the past six years, developing a more integrated, more collaborative community," McConnell said.
As evidence of the continuing threat, the officials cited last week's release of a videotaped message from Osama bin Laden, as well as the recent disruption of terrorist cells in Germany and Denmark. Bin Laden, in his first public video appearance in three years, predicted that the Bush administration would reap "failure" in Iraq and urged Americans to reject Western capitalism and embrace Islam.
Chertoff said the bin Laden tape refuted any notion that al-Qaeda had "lost interest" in attacking Americans on their own soil. "The enemy is not standing still; they are constantly revising their tactics and adapting their strategy and their capabilities," he said. His comments contrasted with those of White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, who in a television interview Sunday mocked the al-Qaeda leader as "impotent" and a "man on the run, from a cave."
Chertoff and the others said they were troubled by details of an alleged plot by al-Qaeda sympathizers in Germany who planned attacks on German and U.S. citizens in Europe. The plot was foiled last week when German authorities, working closely with U.S. intelligence officials, arrested two German citizens and a Turk who officials said were planning to bomb various targets, possibly including a U.S. military base.
Mueller said the German suspects -- who had European travel documents -- were examples of terrorists loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda who could carry out devastating attacks, with or without support from the organization's leaders.
Some U.S. officials have described the arrests as a model of U.S.-foreign collaboration. But senior U.S. intelligence officials confirmed yesterday that the three members of the German cell were arrested earlier than German investigators had planned, because of an error in surveillance operations.
The three, who had trained in Pakistan with Uzbek jihadists, had been under surveillance for months after U.S. intelligence officers alerted German counterterrorism officials to their presence. The arrests took place after local police stopped the three for driving at night with their high beams on. In checking their identifications, the officers discovered that the men were on a terrorist watch list. One of the officers stated this fact in the presence of the suspects, U.S. officials confirmed.
The incident prompted German counterterrorism police to arrest the three men earlier than they wanted, and as a result, many of the men's associates remain at large or have fled the country, a U.S. intelligence official said. "You can be sure the investigation has not ended and they were not the only ones involved," the official said.
Under questioning by senators, McConnell suggested that U.S. intelligence on the men was enhanced by a controversial measure approved by Congress last month. The law, signed by President Bush on Aug. 5, gave U.S. spy agencies greater freedom to eavesdrop on overseas calls without a warrant, even when those calls are routed through phone lines and cables on U.S. soil.
But other U.S. officials confirmed that the German cell was discovered last October, more than 10 months before the law was adopted. A spokesman for McConnell declined to elaborate further on his remarks. Surveillance of overseas communication has always been permitted under U.S. law.