By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; A03
The Obama administration's top intelligence officials on Tuesday described it as "certain" that al-Qaeda or its allies will try to attack the United States in the next six months, and they called for new flexibility in how U.S. officials detain and question terrorist suspects.
The officials, testifying before the Senate intelligence committee, also warned of increased risk of cyber-attacks in the coming months, saying that the recent China-based hacking of Google's computers was both a "wake-up call" and a forerunner to future strikes aimed at businesses or intended to cause economic disruption.
"Al-Qaeda maintains its intent to attack the homeland -- preferably with a large-scale operation that would cause mass casualties, harm the U.S. economy or both," Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair told the committee in a hearing convened to assess threats against the country.
Blair, flanked by the directors of the CIA and FBI and the chief intelligence officers of the State and Defense departments, put al-Qaeda at the top of a threat list that included the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, criminal cartels and the potential for economic collapse in developing countries hard-hit by recession.
The notable positive trends over the past year, he said, were the continuing security improvements in Iraq and the signs of economic recovery in developed countries. Last year, the prospect of global economic collapse ranked as the top security concern.
"Missteps could set back the recovery, particularly if inflation or political pressures to consolidate budgets emerge before household consumption and private investment have begun to play a larger role in the recovery," Blair said.
Blair and CIA Director Leon Panetta warned of new threats from al-Qaeda's regional allies, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Several groups appear increasingly intent on attacking U.S. and other Western targets, even as al-Qaeda's core leadership struggles to regain its footing after repeated setbacks and eroding popular support in the Muslim world, the officials said.
"They are moving to other safe havens and regional nodes such as Yemen, Somalia, the Maghreb and others," Panetta said. He said al-Qaeda-inspired groups had successfully "deployed individuals to this country," citing recently disrupted terrorist plots in Colorado and Chicago.
The intelligence officials and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said U.S. counterterrorism agencies have absorbed the lessons of the Dec. 25 attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit, but all said future attempts are inevitable and could happen soon.
Asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), committee chairwoman, to assess the likelihood of an attempted terrorist attack on the United States within the next six months, Blair described it as "certain." Each of the four other officials, asked the same question, agreed with Blair.