Thursday, February 10, 2011

Intel chief sees al Qaeda as top threat

WASHINGTON: Al Qaeda and its offshoots remain the top threat to the United States and, in turn, the focus of the US intelligence agencies, the director of national intelligence plans to tell Congress, according to US officials.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also is expected to discuss revolts that have swept through two major Arab allies of the United States, toppling the leader of Tunisia and threatening the regime in Egypt, according to two intelligence officials familiar with testimony planned Thursday before a congressional committee.

Clapper probably will face tough questioning from lawmakers about whether he and other intelligence officials failed to provide specific details leading up to the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Other issues on Clapper’s agenda include the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and cyber terrorism, one official said.
The officials requested anonymity to discuss Clapper’s testimony ahead of its release.
The threat assessment hearing is often described as the most important of the year because the director of intelligence lays out the 16 major intelligence agencies’ priorities.

It drives the agenda for the intelligence community and the congressional committees that must decide what issues to tackle and what programs to pay for.
Intelligence officials say Clapper will focus on the militant threat, just a day after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee that the terrorist threat to the United States is at its highest level since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Clapper will be CIA Director Leon Panetta, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter and the directors of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.
The hearing also is the lawmakers’ annual opportunity to put their most pressing questions to the top officials in a public setting. This year, the House Intelligence Committee gets the first crack at them, with the Senate going second.
House Intelligence Committee members are expected to ask whether the intelligence community fumbled its analysis of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. The lawmakers received a classified briefing Tuesday on Egypt and other “Middle East hot spots,” said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.
The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, on Tuesday called the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts a “wakeup” for the intelligence community in an interview on MSNBC.
Last week, Feinstein and other senators questioned CIA official Stephanie O’Sullivan over whether the combined US agencies had provided specific warnings that violence was about to unfold.
O’Sullivan said President Barack Obama was warned of instability in Egypt “at the end of last year.” She was speaking at her confirmation hearing to become the deputy director of national intelligence, second in command to Clapper.
The senators pressed O’Sullivan to provide a timetable of what intelligence the president was provided and when. The responses will be provided within days, according to an intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
The hearing also will be a chance for the new House Intelligence Committee chairman, Republican Mike Rogers, to lay out his own priorities. Rogers and the top Democrat, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, have said they will work to tighten oversight of the intelligence community on their watch.
On Wednesday, their offices announced their committee had voted unanimously to allow a handful of House appropriations committee members and staff to attend classified briefings and hearings to have them better informed about the programs they are voting to finance.
Both lawmakers also hope to pass a bill this year to pay the intelligence budget. The last such bill, caught in a tug of war between Congress and Bush and Obama officials, took six years to become law.

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