WASHINGTON - Facing Congress for the first time since Sept. 11, CIA Director George J. Tenet staunchly defended his agency's efforts to combat terrorism, while warning that the al-Qaida network remains an immediate and grave danger to the nation.
"Al-Qaida has not yet been destroyed," Tenet said. "Its leaders, still at large, are working to reconstitute the organization and resume its terrorist operations."
The director of central intelligence told lawmakers that an attack by al-Qaida at such "high-profile" events as the Super Bowl or the Winter Olympics, which begin tomorrow in Salt Lake City, would fit with the terrorists' interest in "striking another blow within the United States that would command worldwide media attention."
"We know they will hurt us again," Tenet said in his first public comments about the threat of terrorism since just after the attacks Sept. 11. "We have to minimize their ability to do so because there is no perfection in this business."
Tenet said documents recovered in Afghanistan show that Osama bin Laden was pursuing "a sophisticated biological weapons research program" and was also trying to acquire a nuclear device and possibly a radioactive dispersal device, or "dirty bomb."
Delivering his annual report to the Senate Intelligence Committee on outside threats to the United States, Tenet painted a grim picture of a dangerous "convergence of threats" from America's enemies, many of them pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
Despite the arrests of nearly 1,000 al-Qaida operatives in 60 countries, Tenet said, bin Laden's network still poses the most serious threat to Americans. He said the terrorist network was working to acquire dangerous chemical agents and toxins.
"Make no mistake," Tenet said. "Despite the battles we have won in Afghanistan, we remain a nation at war."
Along with potential strikes on landmarks and government facilities, al-Qaida has been considering attacks on U.S. airports, bridges, harbors and dams, Tenet said. He also said the network has plans to strike against U.S. interests in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia.
Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees are preparing for hearings this year to examine the CIA's failure to foresee the attacks of Sept. 11.
But with Tenet before the Senate panel yesterday, Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama took the opportunity to grill the lone Cabinet-level holdover from the Clinton administration about what Shelby called "a disturbing series of intelligence shortfalls."
Shelby, the committee's ranking Republican and the most vocal Tenet critic, said Americans deserve to know "why our intelligence community failed to provide adequate warning of such a terrorist attack on our soil."
A defiant Tenet countered that he was "proud" of the agency's record on terrorism, and denied that the surprise attacks amounted to a failure by the intelligence community.
"You get to speak to the American people, and so do I," Tenet told lawmakers sternly. "We welcome the committee's review of our record on terrorism. It is a record of discipline, strategy, focus and action. We're proud of that record. We've been at war with al-Qaida for over five years."
Tenet said the CIA had known that terrorists might be planning attacks against U.S. interests last summer and knew "in broad terms" that bin Laden might attack targets in the United States.
But, he acknowledged, "We never had the texture that said the day, time and place of the event inside the United States would result in Sept. 11. It was not the result of the failure of attention and discipline and focus and consistent effort, and the American people need to understand that.
"Whatever shortcomings we may have, we owe it to the country to look at ourselves honestly and systematically. But when people use the word failure, failure means no focus, no attention, no discipline. And those were not present in what either we or the FBI did."
Pointing to the agency's successes, Tenet said that before the millennium celebrations, he had alerted President Bush that between five and 15 attacks on American interests in the United States and abroad had been planned.
"None of these attacks occurred," he said, crediting the FBI and the CIA. What's more, he said, after picking up a "spectacular" number of vague threat reports last spring and summer, the CIA was able to thwart bombings of three or four U.S. facilities overseas.
"We know we saved many lives," he said.
Sen. Pat Roberts noted that the agency has been criticized for not having spies in Afghanistan who might have picked up information about Sept. 11. The Kansas Republican said his constituents at a Dodge City coffee shop want to know why, if the suspected American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh could meet bin Laden while in Afghanistan, the CIA could not get an agent near him.
"I'm not going to do this in open session," Tenet shot back angrily, "but you better tell everybody at the cafe it's not true."