CIA Chief: Iraq Not Main Front

Michael Hayden says bin Laden is a top priority.
Michael Hayden says bin Laden is a top priority. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
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By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 2008

CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said yesterday that al-Qaeda remains the single greatest threat to the United States but that Iraq is no longer the central front in the broader war on terrorism.

"Today, the flow of money, weapons and foreign fighters into Iraq is greatly diminished and al-Qaeda senior leaders no longer point to it as the central battlefield," Hayden told an audience at the Atlantic Council, a bipartisan group that deals with international affairs. But he warned that al-Qaeda remains "a determined, adaptive enemy" that is resilient and operating "from its safe haven in Pakistan's tribal areas."

"If there is a major strike on this country, it will bear the fingerprints of al-Qaeda," he said. While law enforcement and diplomacy have their place, Hayden said, "this war -- and no one should mistake it as anything else -- is far from over."

Hayden said there has not been any noticeable increase in terrorist chatter that would indicate al-Qaeda is preparing to take advantage of a presidential transition period as they did in attacking the World Trade Center in 1993 shortly after President Clinton took office, or again in 2001, as the Bush administration was settling in. "No real or artificial spike [in intercepted terrorist communications] has been caused by the transition," he said.

As for his own plans, Hayden said that he and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell recognize that "we serve at the pleasure of the president." He added that they understand "there has to be a personal relationship" between the president and his top intelligence directors and would "fully understand" if either or both were replaced.

He said if asked to stay, "we would stay for a period," repeating almost verbatim what McConnell had said at an awards ceremony yesterday. "If they ask us to stay for some reason, for a period of time, we would stay and assist them in the transition," McConnell said.

Hayden expressed ambivalence about his future during an interview Wednesday with radio station WDVE in his hometown, Pittsburgh, saying he liked his job but was taking things "one day at a time." He said, "I'd be honored if the president-elect would ask me, but, you know, that is something that would have to be discussed between him and me."

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, called yesterday for new intelligence leadership that will "work aggressively to ensure the safety and security of Americans without undermining our laws and Constitution." In going public, Feingold echoed the views of several other senators and House members on the intelligence panels who believe McConnell and Hayden gave excessive public support to Bush administration programs of enhanced interrogation for terrorism suspects.

In his remarks yesterday, Hayden said the hunt for bin Laden is "very much at the top of CIA's priority list" and that "his death or capture clearly would have a significant impact on the confidence of his followers." There is some doubt whether bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, "could maintain unity in the ranks," he said.

"The truth is," Hayden said, "we simply don't know what would happen if bin Laden is killed or captured, but I'm willing to bet that it would work in our favor."

Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.

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