The new director of national intelligence said yesterday that the United States is "very concerned" that Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership are attempting to rebuild their terrorist network and establish training camps in a region of northwest Pakistan "that has never been governed by any power."
"We inflicted a major blow, they retreated to another area, and they are going through a process to reestablish and rebuild, adapting to the seams or the weak spots as they might perceive them," retired Vice Adm. John M. McConnell told the Senate Armed Services Committee as he delivered his first global threat assessment to Capitol Hill.
While describing new al-Qaeda volunteers as "very committed individuals," McConnell also said they lack the experience of the old leadership, nearly three-quarters of which has been killed or captured. Without giving details, he said, "a number of [terrorist] plans and activities have been shut down or disrupted."
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) asked McConnell about the probability that al-Qaeda members in Pakistan or Iraq are organizing an attack on the United States -- a scenario that President Bush recently hinted at should U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq. The intelligence chief replied that an attack would "most likely" emerge from Pakistan, though he described Iraq as "a cause celebre for the jihadists in creating forces," and warned that al-Qaeda elements in Iraq, Syria and Europe are planning attacks.
McConnell also outlined some obstacles to a settlement in Iraq. The majority Shiites, he said, "are not confident of their position and . . . are worried that the Sunnis may come back and dominate the country." The Sunnis, he said, are unwilling "to admit that they are no longer in charge," and the Kurds are "biding their time to protect Kurdish interests." Overall, he said, "I think the Iraqi political leaders have close to impossible tasks."
Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, confirmed for the committee that weapons training for Iraqi militia members is being provided in Iran as well as in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) called the Iranian training "a very serious act and one that we ought to consider taking steps to stop in defense of our soldiers."
Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) was one of several Democrats who questioned the decision to include an assessment of a "rapid withdrawal" of coalition forces from Iraq as part of the recent National Intelligence Estimate. The NIE judgment was that such a withdrawal would increase violence and hasten deterioration of the situation in Iraq -- a finding that has since been cited by Bush and others who support a troop increase and oppose withdrawal.
National Intelligence Council Chairman Thomas Fingar, who supervised production of the NIE, told the Senate panel that "unquestionably and categorically" there had been no political pressure to shape the estimate.
"I'm not criticizing your bona fides," Bayh told Fingar, "but I do care about the credibility of your work product . . . and when you start down that slippery slope, you just get into these kinds of arguments."
Lawmakers praised McConnell and his colleagues for their candid testimony. At one point, when asked about recent reports that Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr appeared to be both for and against the increase in troops in Baghdad, the president's chief intelligence adviser said, "I don't know what Sadr's position is. . . . I'd be guessing."