The U.S. intelligence community regards a still-lethal al Qaeda terrorist network as America’s “top concern” but sees potential threats from Iran, which “seeks nuclear weapons,” and North Korea, which probably already has them, the nation’s intelligence chief said today.
In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, laid out a broad array of global challenges as part of a hearing on current and projected national security threats to the United States.
The most dramatic change facing the nation “is the exponential increase in the number of targets we must identify, track, and analyze,” he said. “Today, in addition to hostile nation-states, we are focusing on terrorist groups, proliferation networks, alienated communities, charismatic individuals, narcotraffickers, and microscopic influenza.”
Appearing with the chiefs of the intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency, Negroponte sparred with committee Democrats over a controversial NSA eavesdropping program that critics have charged violates U.S. law. The intelligence chiefs defended the legality of the program and strongly denounced leaks about it, but they refused to provide details in open session.
The CIA director, Porter J. Goss, said in response to a question that leaks about the NSA program and other intelligence efforts have caused “very severe” damage, and he expressed hope that journalists would be forced to testify before grand juries on the sources of the leaks.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the committee, complained that briefings about the NSA program have been limited to the top congressional leadership, leaving the full intelligence committees to conclude that they cannot be trusted.
“This rationale for withholding information from Congress is flat-out unacceptable and nothing more than political smoke,” Rockefeller said.
Saying that Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network “remains our top concern,” Negroponte testified that despite successes in targeting its leadership, “the organization’s core elements still plot and make preparations for terrorist strikes against the homeland and other targets from bases in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area.” In addition, al Qaeda has “gained added reach” through its merger with the Iraq-based group of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi, “which has broadened al Qaeda’s appeal within the jihadist community and potentially put new resources at its disposal,” he said.
Al Qaeda remains interested in launching attacks within the United States, as its leaders have stated, and “the most probable scenario” is an attack using “conventional explosives,” Negroponte said. However, the network “remains interested in acquiring chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials or weapons to attack the United States, U.S. troops, and U.S. interests worldwide,” he said.
Negroponte said U.S. intelligence reporting “indicates that nearly 40 terrorist organizations, insurgencies, or cults have used, possessed, or expressed an interest in chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear agents or weapons.” He said many of those groups “are capable of conducting simple, small-scale attacks, such as poisonings, or using improvised chemical devices.”
The nations of greatest concern are Iran and North Korea, said Negroponte, a career diplomat who took over the newly created post of director of national intelligence in April last year.
Iran, he pointed out, conducted a clandestine uranium-enrichment program for nearly two decades in violation of an International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards agreement.
“And despite its claims to the contrary, we assess that Iran seeks nuclear weapons,” Negroponte said. “We judge that Tehran probably does not yet have a nuclear weapon and probably has not yet produced or acquired the necessary fissile material. Nevertheless, the danger that it will acquire a nuclear weapon and the ability to integrate it with the ballistic missiles Iran already possesses is a reason for immediate concern.
The intelligence chief said Iran already possesses “the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East,” an arsenal it views as essential “to deter — and if necessary retaliate against — forces in the region, including U.S. forces.”
Moreover, hard-liners are in firm control of all major branches and institutions of the Iranian government, which “has become more effective and efficient at repressing the nascent shoots of personal freedom” that have emerged. “Indeed, the regime today is more confident and assertive than it has been since the early days of the Islamic Republic,” he said, thanks in part to record oil revenue that has fueled generous public spending.
While Iran pursues nuclear weapons, in the U.S. view, it also poses a conventional military threat, Negroponte said.
“Iran is enhancing its ability to project its military power in order to threaten to disrupt the operations and reinforcement of U.S. forces based in the region,” he said, reading from a lengthy prepared testimony.
As for North Korea, U.S. intelligence believes that the communist state’s claim to have nuclear weapons “is probably true,” Negroponte said.
“Thus, like Iran, North Korea threatens international security and is located in a historically volatile region,” he said. In addition, it sells conventional weapons around the world, including ballistic missiles to several Middle Eastern countries, he said. “And it produces and smuggles abroad counterfeit U.S. currency, as well as narcotics and other contraband.”
In Iraq, there have been some “encouraging developments,” but the country remains beset by “numerous challenges,” including the risk of political divisions as it struggles to create a permanent government, said Negroponte, who served as ambassador to Iraq from mid-2004 until he became national intelligence director.
Among the positives, he said, are that insurgents have been unable to “establish any lasting territorial control,” coordinate nationwide operations, disrupt national elections or attract popular support beyond a Sunni Arab base.
In addition, he said, Iraqi security forces are becoming more capable, and “encouraging and exploitable” signs of open conflict have emerged between “extreme Sunni jihadists and Sunni nationalist elements of the insurgency.”
On the other hand, “Iraqi Sunni Arab disaffection is the primary enabler of the insurgency and is likely to remain high in 2006,” Negroponte said. “Even if a broad, inclusive national government emerges, there almost certainly will be a lag time before we see a dampening effect on the insurgency.”
Sunni Arab political participation is vital for effective governance and security following Iraqi elections in December, and virtually all Iraqi parties seek a broad-based government, “but all want it to be formed on their terms,” Negroponte said. He said that “there is a danger . . . that political negotiations and deal making will prove divisive.”
Elsewhere in the Middle East, the election victory of the Hamas movement in the Palestinian territories last week “ushered in a period of great uncertainty,” the intelligence chief said. But it does not necessarily mean that the peace process between Israel and a Palestinian leadership long dominated by the Fatah party “is halted irrevocably.”
The vote for Hamas “may have been cast more against the Fatah government than for the Hamas program of rejecting Israel,” he said. “In any case, Hamas now must contend with Palestinian public opinion that has over the years has supported the two-state solution.”
In Latin America, U.S. intelligence expects Venezuela’s maverick populist president, Hugo Chavez, “to deepen his relationship” with Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro, Negroponte said. Chavez “also is seeking closer economic, military and diplomatic ties with Iran and North Korea,” has “scaled back counternarcotics cooperation” with the United States and “is attempting to diversify oil exports away from the U.S.,” he said.
In a question-and-answer session following his report, Negroponte came under fire from Democrats on the committee over the secret eavesdropping program authorized by President Bush following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The National Security Agency program was ordered in the interest of national security to monitor calls to or from suspected al Qaeda operatives and their affiliates abroad, Negroponte said.
“This was not about domestic surveillance,” he said. “It was about dealing with the international terrorist threat in the most agile and effective way possible.” He declined to go into more detail in open session.
But Democrats complained about what they called selective dissemination of intelligence, as well as limitations on congressional briefings about the NSA program.
“Those programs are under the strictest possible oversight,” Negroponte said. “They’re reviewed legally with the greatest of care,” and safeguards are in place to preserve the privacy of American citizens or residents, he said.
“Protections are taken should their names come up in various kinds of intelligence that is collected, to minimize and protect their identities,” Negroponte said. “This has been a standard procedure of the NSA . . . for many years.”
The intelligence chief’s reply “isn’t good enough for me,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “That answer is, essentially, ‘trust us.’ “
Citing the late president Ronald Reagan’s dictum, “Trust, but verify,” Wyden complained that “we have no way to verify” administration assurances that the eavesdropping program is operating as advertised.
Responding to a question from Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), who said that “rampant leaking” about intelligence programs has demoralized intelligence agents in the field, Negroponte said one of his greatest disappointments in nine months on the job has been “the degree to which people are willing to talk about classified matters to the public media.”
Goss said, “I’m sorry to tell you that the damage has been very severe to our capabilities to carry out our mission.” He indicated that leaks have disrupted CIA plans, caused risks to agency assets and reduced the effectiveness of intelligence sources and methods. He declined to elaborate.
Goss complained that “there has been an erosion of the culture of secrecy” at the CIA. “We’re trying to re-instill that,” he said, in part by aggressively investigating leaks.
He said he has also asked the FBI and the Justice Department to help.
“It is my aim and it is my hope that we will witness a grand jury investigation with reporters present being asked to reveal who is leaking this information,” he said.