Al-Qaida will hit U.S., Tenet says

Central intelligence chief, NSA and FBI directors testify to Congress panel

October 18, 2002|By Laura Sullivan and Ariel Sabar | Laura Sullivan and Ariel Sabar,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, warned yesterday that al-Qaida is in an "execution phase" and intends to strike again, possibly in the United States.

"When you see the multiple attacks that you've seen occur around the world, the number of failed attacks, the various messages that have been issued by senior al-Qaida leaders," Tenet told members of Congress, "you must make the assumption that al-Qaida intends to strike us both here and overseas.

"An attempt to conduct another attack on U.S. soil is certain," he said.

Speaking to the joint committee investigating intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, Tenet said he planned to discuss with Tom Ridge, director of homeland security, whether to raise the national threat level from yellow to orange, the second-highest.

He said, though, that Ridge has taken some recent precautions, alerting possible attack targets to be extra cautious.

In a contentious session with lawmakers, Tenet appeared with Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the National Security Agency, testifying publicly for the first time since the attacks, and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

At one point, Mueller appeared red-faced as he defended his agency and scrambled to retrieve detailed information from an aide behind him.

Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, criticized the three for not reprimanding or firing subordinates who the committee's investigators found had mishandled information or ignored important intelligence reports.

As Tenet tried to read his opening statement, Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida interrupted to remind him of time constraints.

Tenet fired back: "Sir, I just have to say, I've been waiting a year. I've got another 20 minutes."

Outside the hearing, Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said he was frustrated by the witnesses.

"How do you have meaningful reform without accountability?" Shelby asked. "You don't fire a file clerk. Accountability starts at the top."

Yesterday, lawmakers released previously classified copies of Tenet's closed-door testimony to the committee in June. At that hearing, Tenet said that since the attacks, the agency had learned that Osama bin Laden's second-in-command had drawn up a study in 1996 on the feasibility of hijacking U.S. planes and destroying them in flight.

Tenet's June testimony also said the agency had discovered since the attacks that the Sept. 11 plot was hatched three years earlier and that an al-Qaida associate initially proposed to bin Laden the idea of crashing small planes loaded with explosives into the World Trade Center.

Bin Laden, Tenet said, responded that the group should use large planes.

Hayden's appearance marked only the third time in the agency's 50-year history that an NSA director has addressed Congress in public. Though the unusual appearance signaled the premium the committee has placed on a public reckoning for intelligence failures, Hayden was spared the sharp questions directed at Tenet and Mueller.

Hayden told Congress that the eavesdropping agency had no warnings of the Sept. 11 attacks. And he pointedly brushed aside criticism of its failure to translate ominous telephone conversations it intercepted the day before the attacks.

He acknowledged that in the hours before the hijackings, the agency obtained "two pieces of information suggesting that individuals with terrorist connections believed something significant would happen on Sept. 11."

He was referring to widely reported intercepts that said, "The match begins tomorrow" and "Tomorrow is zero" day.

But he said those intercepts were vague and routine. He expressed frustration that secret testimony about the intercepts was leaked to the news media this year, saying such disclosures hinder NSA's ability to spy on unwitting targets.

Hayden acknowledged that the agency received information in early 1999 linking Nawaf al-Hazmi, one of the hijackers, to al-Qaida. But the NSA did not share that information with other intelligence agencies until early 2000. Hayden described that delay as "one area where our performance - in retrospect - could have been better."

Not until August 2001 did the CIA put al-Hazmi on a watch list that would have barred his entry into the country. By then, al-Hazmi was already in the United States.

Hayden told the committee that legal limits constrain the agency's ability to eavesdrop on U.S. soil. He invited Congress to reconsider the current balance between national security and individual privacy.

The NSA is authorized to spy on foreign communications. It is barred in most cases from using its sophisticated satellites and other powerful eavesdropping technology to spy on people living in the United States.

"I am not ... helped by being reminded that I need more Arabic linguists or by someone second-guessing an obscure intercept sitting in our files that may make more sense today than it did two years ago," he said.

"What I really need you to do is to talk to your constituents and find out where the American people want that line between security and liberty."

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