Intel Chief On Threat Assessment

The U.S. director of national intelligence says al-Qaida will continue to try to attack the U.S. until its two top leaders are dead. Dennis Blair was briefing a congressional panel Tuesday on the assessment of global threats.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Today, U.S. spy agencies weighed in with their annual report on threats to national security. And there's good news and bad news. On the one hand, fears are easing that the global financial crisis could trigger global instability. On the other hand, the threat of cyber attacks looks worse than ever. As for the threat from al-Qaida, it looks more complicated than ever.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is keeping track of all this (unintelligible) joins us now. Hi.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's start with al-Qaida. For years we've been hearing that al-Qaida poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security. Still the case?

KELLY: Well, I'll let CIA Director Leon Panetta answer that. He said in his opening statement that al-Qaida and the fear of a future terrorist attack still what keeps him awake at night. His boss, the National Intelligence director, Admiral Dennis Blair, was also there testifying. He said as long as the two top leaders: Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri are still out there, al-Qaida will keep trying to hit the U.S. homeland.

Now, having said all that, CIA Director Panetta argued the greatest threat that they're worrying about is not another 9/11, another attack on that scale, but rather that al-Qaida keeps adapting, keeps changing its methods in ways that make it much, much harder to detect, much harder to stop.

SIEGEL: You're talking about concerns about so-called lone wolf terrorists -attacks more like the one at Fort Hood?

KELLY: Well, that's one of them. The framework that they seem to laying out was - think about this in three ways: You still have core al-Qaida trying to attack the U.S. And the example that they pointed to of that was Najibullah Zazi, this is the Denver airport shuttle driver who was trying to plot bombs in New York City.

The lone wolf attack, home grown terrorisms, the suspected major, Nidal Hasan, at Fort Hood, as you mentioned, an example of self-radicalized people maybe already here in the U.S., as he was. Third thing that we saw that was relatively new this last year - ability of al-Qaida offshoot groups such as al-Qaida in Yemen sending people...

SIEGEL: (unintelligible)

KELLY: Right. Like the Christmas Day attack on the airplane inbound to Detroit.

SIEGEL: Okay, other topics - cyber security. How worried do the intelligence agencies say we should be?

KELLY: Well, this was interesting. Actually, Dennis Blair, the DNI, started his testimony with this. Used much stronger language than I've heard him use before, talked about malicious cyber activity, and I'll quote him, "is occurring on an unprecedented scale with extraordinary sophistication." He talked about things like the recent hacking attack on Google, said that should be a wakeup call, said that the U.S. information infrastructure overall severely threatened. So, this is something we're hearing more and more about, clearly something they're thinking about more and more.

SIEGEL: Now, the thinking used to be that in terms of the global economic downturn, that that posed a security threat. And now you say they say the threat has eased?

KELLY: It has eased. And this is interesting. That was actually the number one threat to U.S. national security that they mentioned at last year's hearing. So, a year ago the fear was you had this global economic downturn that would lead to unemployment, which would lead to civil unrest, which would lead to political instability, on and on and on and on. That has not happened, at least not to the extent that they feared it would. So this is a pocket of good news there.

The view from the intelligence community, at least, is that economic recovery is still tenuous. There could still be a lot of setbacks, but - and I'll quote him again, Admiral Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence, says, "The past economic clouds darkening the whole strategic outlook have partially lifted."

SIEGEL: And threats from rising nuclear powers Iran, North Korea?

KELLY: The thinking - pretty consistent on this and not a lot new here. The assessment from the intelligence community remains Iran is keeping its options open to develop nuclear weapons, but that they haven't yet. They haven't necessarily decided to develop nuclear weapons yet. If they wanted to, they could probably within the next few years. That's the new language - the next few years.

On the North Korea front, as always, one hopes that they know a lot more than they're willing to say in open unclassified session. What they will say is Pyongyang and its nuclear weapons, missile programs pose a serious threat. That they have produced a nuclear device, although how many weapons North Korea may have they either don't know or will not say in open session.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR defense correspondent Mary Louise Kelly updating us on the threat assessment that U.S. intelligence agencies delivered today to Congress.

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Al-Qaida, Cyberattacks Top U.S. Threat List

Said Ali al-Shihri, who was jailed in Guantanamo for six years after his capture in Pakistan i i

hide captionThis image was taken from an undated video posted on a militant-leaning Web site on Jan. 23 and provided by the SITE Intelligence Group. It shows Said Ali al-Shihri, who was jailed in Guantanamo for six years after his capture in Pakistan and released by the U.S. in 2007 to the Saudi government for rehabilitation. He has resurfaced as a leader of a Yemeni branch of al-Qaida.

SITE Intelligence Group/AP
Said Ali al-Shihri, who was jailed in Guantanamo for six years after his capture in Pakistan

This image was taken from an undated video posted on a militant-leaning Web site on Jan. 23 and provided by the SITE Intelligence Group. It shows Said Ali al-Shihri, who was jailed in Guantanamo for six years after his capture in Pakistan and released by the U.S. in 2007 to the Saudi government for rehabilitation. He has resurfaced as a leader of a Yemeni branch of al-Qaida.

SITE Intelligence Group/AP

The nation's top intelligence official told Congress on Tuesday that the U.S. government is making significant progress against al-Qaida's terrorist network, despite several recent high-profile plots, while separately he issued a sharp new warning on an alarming rise in cyberattacks.

Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, opened his annual threat assessment by calling recent computer attacks against Google's operations in China "a wake-up call." Computer attacks by nation-states, terrorist networks and criminals against government and private computers are happening "on an unprecedented scale with extraordinary sophistication," he said.

The online threat has moved well beyond simple criminal acts. Instead, it appears to potentially threaten the heart of the strategic advantage long held by the U.S. military and U.S. spy agencies.

"We cannot be certain that our cyberspace infrastructure will remain available and reliable during a time of crisis," Blair warned.

Emphasis On Al-Qaida

But in his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Blair quickly turned to al-Qaida, which he warned still has the capability to "recruit, train and deploy operatives" for terrorist plots inside the United States.

"Counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaida have put the organization in one of its most difficult positions since the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom in late 2001," Blair said in his prepared statement. "However, while these efforts have slowed the pace of anti-U.S. planning and hindered progress on new external operations, they have not been sufficient to stop them."

Blair's delicate balancing act reflects the difficulty of putting into context the recent series of terrorist plots — including the failed Christmas Day attack on a U.S. airliner, the arrest of a man in Denver for an alleged New York terrorism plot and the Fort Hood massacre in Texas — which have cast some doubt on spy agencies' assessments of al-Qaida.

'Many Unanswered Questions'

"It is natural that we ask ourselves whether these events are evidence of an increase in the threat, a change in the nature of the threat, or both," Blair said, adding that "we have many unanswered questions."

Those unanswered questions, according to Blair, still include the exact targets of the plot allegedly involving Najibullah Zazi, the Denver man accused of training with al-Qaida militants in Pakistan, as well as what other plots may be associated with the Yemeni affiliate of al-Qaida that helped a Nigerian student named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly plan the failed Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound trans-Atlantic airliner.

CIA Director Leon Panetta said that while he remains worried about al-Qaida staging another attack inside the United States, he does not necessarily believe it will be another Sept. 11-style attack.

"The greater threat is that al-Qaida is adapting their methods in ways that oftentimes make it difficult to detect," Panetta said.

Indeed, the al-Qaida threat is clearly more diffuse than it was a number of years ago. Blair said that while Zazi was associated with core al-Qaida leaders, Abdulmutallab was tied to an al-Qaida affiliate, and the alleged Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Hasan, was a homegrown extremist.

This splintering has made it much more difficult for spy agencies to track the various kinds of militants that could pose a threat.

Importance Of Bin Laden

Still, Blair made it clear that al-Qaida's leaders remain a key factor in the group's strength. U.S. officials have usually tried in recent years to avoid talking too much about Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader who remains at large, but Blair was unusually frank about his importance.

"We assess that at least until Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are dead or captured, al-Qaida will retain its resolute intent to strike the homeland," Blair said.

It was Blair's comments about the growing cyberthreat, however, that were some of the most surprising conclusions in the threat assessment.

His description of just how common these attacks have become suggests that combating these online intrusions has become an important and daily part of the intelligence community's operations.

"Sensitive information is stolen daily from both government and private-sector networks, undermining confidence in our information systems, and in the very information these systems were intended to convey," Blair warned.

"We often find persistent, unauthorized, and at times unattributable presences on exploited networks, the hallmark of an unknown adversary intending to do far more than merely demonstrate skill or mock a vulnerability," he said.

Online attacks are particularly difficult to fight because officials often struggle to identify their origin. Blair's assessment of the cyberthreat was perhaps most notable for not naming a single country or entity, even though China and Russia are widely believed to be sponsoring — or at least encouraging — a growing range of cyberattacks.

In a new report obtained by NPR, the Department of Homeland Security identifies cyber attacks as "one of the homeland security community's most important missions."

"Sophisticated cyber criminals and nation-states, among others, are among the actors in cyberspace who now pose great cost and risk both to our economy and national security," the department says in its first-ever quadrennial strategic review. "They exploit vulnerabilities in cyberspace to steal money and information, and to destroy, disrupt, or threaten the delivery of critical services."

The Homeland Security report also acknowledges that countering cyber threats could pose some tough dilemmas. "Innovation in technology, practice, and policy must further protect — not erode — privacy and civil liberties," the report says.

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