Obama Praises U.S. Intelligence Efforts Against Al-Qaeda

President Obama on Tuesday thanked counterterrorism employees who work to prevent attacks on the United States and its allies, crediting them with 'making real progress' in disrupting al-Qaeda and other extremist networks. (Oct. 6)
By Anne E. Kornblut and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 6, 2009; 1:05 PM

President Obama praised U.S. intelligence and other national security agencies Tuesday for cooperating in pursuit of al-Qaeda, saying "real progress" has been made against the group.

Speaking at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Obama described an al-Qaeda weakened by both the coordinated U.S. effort against it and the group's own "bankrupt ideology."

He also credited his foreign policy, which he described as "leading by example," for helping turn opinion in the Muslim world against the group.

"Few Americans know about the work you do, and this is how it should be," Obama said. "Today I want every American to know about the difference you've made."

The White House has been charting a delicate course as it attempts to turn the page on Bush-era anti-terrorism policies. Even as Obama wages a war in Afghanistan that he has called critical to curbing terrorism, his administration is trying to defend itself from criticism by former vice president Richard B. Cheney and other Republicans for casting aside what they say are critical tools for protecting the United States.

Obama aides pointed to the events leading up to the recent arrest of Najibullah Zazi as a prime example of what they say is the president's deep involvement in anti-terrorism efforts. In late August, shortly after federal agents began tracking the movements of the suspected terrorist in Colorado, senior officials added the case to Obama's daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office.

Agents had only fragmented information about Zazi at that point, administration officials said. But the case quickly piqued Obama's curiosity and led to what aides called an intensive three-week White House focus on the case.

The 24-year-old Afghan immigrant was arrested last month, accused of seeking to build bombs on U.S. soil after attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan. Investigators think Zazi was "entering the execution phase" of a bombing plot, a senior administration official said over the weekend, possibly timed to coincide with the president's trip to New York for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly or the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Although they think that any threat was removed with Zazi's arrest, officials said further arrests are possible. "We're not done," a senior administration official said.

But already, Obama's approach to the first major terrorist threat made public during his presidency is becoming more clear.

In interviews, senior Obama officials stressed their efforts to set a different tone than the previous administration; the White House says it avoided trumpeting either the elevated threat level or the averted crisis, while portraying Obama as highly involved in monitoring developments. As Zazi drove across the country under heavy surveillance, John O. Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, briefed the president three to four times a day on Zazi's activities .

Shortly after taking office, Obama discarded the term "global war on terror," along with some of its most controversial tools, and aides describe a president who has been deliberative in implementing his own security policy. He has come under fire for not abandoning some of George W. Bush's policies, such as warrantless wiretapping and rendition, and faced criticism for jettisoning others, including enhanced interrogation techniques and secret prisons.

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