Intelligence Officers Describe State of Al-Qaida

Top military and intelligence officials give Congress their best understanding of al-Qaida. The terrorist group's leaders may be hiding near Afghanistan's border.

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We turn now to an effort to understand the terrorist group whose leaders may be hiding near Afghanistan's border. Top military and intelligence officials were pulled before Congress yesterday, asked to explain their best understanding of al-Qaida.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly went along to that hearing. As she reports, lawmakers wanted to know if Iraq is part of the war on terror or a distraction, and what is the difference between al-Qaida and al-Qaida in Iraq - in intelligence shorthand, AQI.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: It fell to Ted Gistaro to take on that last question. Gistaro is the top U.S. analyst on transnational threats and the chief author of the new National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE. He explained the relationship between core al-Qaida and its Iraqi offshoot this way.

Mr. TED GISTARO (National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats): We certainly see very close ideological ties between al-Qaida in Iraq and al-Qaida core. We see shared experiences and personal histories between the leaderships in the organizations. And we see some overlapping of certain facilitation networks. Al-Qaida in Pakistan tries to provide strategic guidance and encouragement to AQI, but it also defers to AQI to make tactical decisions on the ground with regard to its operations inside of Iraq.

KELLY: Democratic Congressman Bud Cramer tried to follow up on that.

Representative BUD CRAMER (Democrat, Alabama): Are you saying that al-Qaida and al-Qaida in Iraq are one and the same organization?

Mr. GISTARO: Sir, the way the relationship is described in the NIE is that al-Qaida in Iraq is an affiliate organization to al-Qaida in South Asia.

Rep. CRAMER: Let me help with you that. Then the answer to that is yes, they're basically one and the same organization.

Mr. GISTARO: Sir, I think, you know, as the president described yesterday, we're dealing with al-Qaida as a decentralized command-and-control structure.

KELLY: So neither Gistaro nor the other officials testifying would put it quite the way President Bush has. In a speech on Tuesday, Mr. Bush described al-Qaida and al-Qaida in Iraq as, quote, "the same terrorist network and an alliance of killers."

Democrats have questioned that, and at yesterday's hearing several asked is Iraq a distraction from the global fight against terrorism? Republican John McHugh put a different spin on the question when he asked it of Pentagon Intelligence Chief Jim Clapper.

Representative JOHN McHUGH (Republican, New York): Do you think Iraq and Afghanistan is an either/or situation or do you think we ought to be focusing on potential success in both?

General JIM CLAPPER (U.S. Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence): Well, I think we should - this is a global campaign and so I don't think it's zero sum or either/or, it's both.

KELLY: Other lawmakers tried to bore in on what they see as a discrepancy between the two most recent NIEs on the al-Qaida threat. An NIE made public last year described an al-Qaida whose senior leadership had been seriously damaged. The one released last week concludes that al-Qaida's senior leadership is growing stronger. Here's Democrat Ellen Tauscher.

Representative ELLEN TAUSCHER (Democrat, California): This is the difference between, gee, I'm really worried there may be something happening up the street, you want to walk faster. That's one set of comments. The other is run, run, run - run for your life.

KELLY: Ted Gistaro responded that the two estimates were trying to answer different questions, with one looking at the trends driving extremism and the other focused on al-Qaida's intent and capabilities.

Rep. TAUSCHER: Well, can I make a suggestion? Until the problem changes, until we find and kill Osama bin Laden, that's all I really want from you people, is to tell me what the status of al-Qaida is.

KELLY: Other lawmakers also wondered about the status of al-Qaida's safe haven in Pakistan. General Clapper said disrupting that safe haven is going to be a long haul process, but that the goal is to make that safe haven, quote, "less safe and less comfortable."

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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