CIA Chief Warns Terror Attack Is Likely

CIA Director Leon Panetta says he expects al-Qaida to attempt an attack on the U.S. in the next six months. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly and Georgetown University's Daniel Byman explain why intelligence officials are so certain, and what intelligence officials are doing to prevent another terrorist attack.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

During their annual report to Congress assessing the security threats facing the United States, the nation's top intelligence chiefs all agree on one thing: al-Qaida will attempt to strike the U.S., and in the not-too-distant future. Here they are, responding to a question by the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Diane Feinstein.

Senator DIANE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): What is the likelihood of another terrorist-attempted attack on the U.S. homeland in the next three to six months? High or low? Director Blair?

Mr. DENNIS BLAIR (Director, National Intelligence Council): An attempted attack, the priority is certain, I would say.

Sen. FEINSTEIN: Mr. Panetta?

Mr. LEON PANETTA (Director, Central Intelligence Agency): I would agree with that.

Sen. FEINSTEIN: Mr. Mueller?

Mr. ROBERT MUELLER (Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation): Agree.

Sen. FEINSTEIN: General Burgess?

Lieutenant General RONALD BURGESS (Director, Defense Intelligence Agency): Yes, ma'am. Agree.

Sen. FEINSTEIN: Mr. Dinger?

Mr. JOHN DINGER (Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Intelligence and Research): Yes.

ROBERTS: FBI Director Leon Panetta went on to say that his biggest worry isn't a massive September 11th-style attack. What concerns him is the way al-Qaida keeps adapting its methods, making plots harder to detect. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Leon Panetta is the director of the CIA, not the FBI.]

Joining us now to talk about the terrorism threat from al-Qaida and what the U.S. is doing to address is it NPR defense correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. She's here with us in Studio 3A. Hi, Mary Louise.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Hi, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: And joining us on the phone from Maryland, Daniel Byman. He's director of Georgetown University's security studies program and a senior fellow with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Welcome to you.

Professor DANIEL BYMAN (Director, Security Studies Program, Georgetown University): Thank you for having me.

ROBERTS: Mary Louise Kelly, put this in some context, because that exchange we just heard is a little frightening.

KELLY: It is frightening. It sounds very scary. You listen to that and say, oh, my goodness. They're going to hit us within the next six months. That means by July, run for the hills. I don't think that was, in fact, the message they were trying to get across. I think what we heard there was U.S. spy chiefs repeating a message they have said for years now, which is, as we know, al-Qaida wants to attack the U.S. They remain determined to do so. They're going to keep trying. That does not mean they're going to succeed.

And the other message that we heard yesterday from testimony and today on Capitol Hill is the real diversity of threats, the real variety of ways that al-Qaida is trying to attack. And they ticked through a number of examples. If you look just at the past year, you know, from core al-Qaida along this Afghan/Pakistan border still trying to attack, to groups in Yemen now, franchised, offshoot groups of al-Qaida trying to send people to attack the U.S. mainland, to homegrown people who are here who may just have been inspired by contacts on the Internet. And a key example there would be Nidal Hasan, the alleged shooter...

ROBERTS: Fort Hood.

KELLY: ...of Fort Hood, exactly. So that was, I think, the takeaway from yesterday, was that the global terrorism threat now looks to U.S. intelligence just much more complicated than it did even a year or two ago.

ROBERTS: And Daniel Byman, what can you tell us about those al-Qaida affiliate groups in places like Yemen and Somalia?

Prof. BYMAN: Well, there have always been al-Qaida affiliates, and there's good news and bad news. If we were having this discussion four years ago, we'd be stressing the danger in Saudi Arabia and we'd be talking even more about the Maghreb. We've seen some progress in both those countries, but, on the other hand, we've seeing groups certainly in Yemen get closer to al-Qaida and more dangerous - and also, the worst being Pakistan, where a number of Pakistani groups that in the past had distant ties to al-Qaida have become much closer.

So affiliates have always been part of what al-Qaida tries to do. The concern here is that these affiliates have gone from regional groups who might strike American or Western targets in their country or nearby to what we saw Christmas Day, where a group is trying to strike the U.S. homeland directly. And thats a very alarming shift.

ROBERTS: And we should say that National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told that Senate panel yesterday that lessons had already been learned since Christmas Day in that attempted attack.

KELLY: That's right, he did. And he's referring to - they have put in place changes since that Christmas Day attack. They have beefed up airport security screening. They have tried to strengthen the no-fly list to make it harder for that type of thing to happen in the future, somebody to actually be able to get on a plane with a bomb. And theyve changed the way intelligence reports are shared among agencies, tried to make that process more uniform, make it happen faster.

And what Blair, the DNI, said yesterday was if Abdulmutallab were to come along again, we think we'd catch him this time. The problem is, he's not going to come along again. It's going to be some new guy trying something different, and they are constantly having to adapt as the enemy shifts its tactics.

ROBERTS: Is that what Leon Panetta meant when he said he doesnt fear another September 11th-style attack?

KELLY: I think so. I mean, what he said was that his - what keeps him awake at night is the fear of another terrorist attack. What he is not so worried about is another spectacular attack along the lines of 9/11. And I think what U.S. spy agencies would argue is that through combinations of defensive measures, beefing up homeland security here in the states, and offensive measures using drones and other means to try to kill or capture terrorists overseas, they have made it much, much tougher for someone to pull off that kind of huge, coordinated attack.

I mean, that's, I guess, the positive way, if there is a positive way to view the attempted attack on Christmas Day, was that, sure, the guy should never have gotten on the plane in the first place and it would have catastrophic if he had succeeded. But it was one guy on one plane with a bomb in his underwear that he couldnt get to work. That's a real step down from what we saw in 9/11 for coordinated, simultaneous, sophisticated attacks that killed 3,000 people in one day.

ROBERTS: Daniel Byman, do you agree with that, that a September 11th-style attack is much harder to pull off now?

Dr. BYMAN: I think that's certainly correct for the reasons that Mary Louise named. But I would add that something like the Christmas Day bombing is somewhere in the middle. That's not - it's something that involved some training. The explosive use was sophisticated. It took real work effort, coordination and planning to do that. It's different than some man like, perhaps, the Fort Hood shooter who simply, you know, picked up a weapon and started firing. And so that midlevel range is, I think, where the greatest dangers are right now. And it's something that I'm sure Panetta and others are watching.

ROBERTS: And Dennis Blair also said, you know, even with the best intelligence, there's always the potential for someone to find new ways of penetrating security. It's a reactive process, it seems.

KELLY: I think that's absolutely right, and they are looking - what CIA Director Leon Panetta said is he sees three different ways they're trying to attack: the homegrown threat, the offshoots of al-Qaida, the core groups still determined to attack. And, perhaps, you know, there are a lot of people who don't fit cleanly into those categories, and you're looking at some sort of hybrid type of strike.

ROBERTS: Daniel Byman?

Dr. BYMAN: Absolutely, and this is why the affiliates are of such great concern, is we like to put individuals in boxes - they belong to one group or another. But what al-Qaida has been very good about from its point of view is borrowing individuals from related causes and not demanding their loyalty. So it's quite possible that we could see someone who is tied to a Pakistani group or perhaps a Palestinian group that Americans don't think of as tied to al-Qaida, all of a sudden showing up in an al-Qaida linked plot because that individual had personal links or organizational ones that we didn't anticipate.

ROBERTS: And we've been concentrating on al-Qaida, but certainly al-Qaida wasn't the only subject of the intelligence officials' report yesterday. For instance, there were some concerns about Iran's nuclear program, Daniel Byman?

Dr. BYMAN: Absolutely, that the U.S. intelligence community and the broader Washington community has been watching Iran move closer and closer towards a nuclear weapon. And the hope is that comprehensive sanctions would be in place that would either get Iran to quit the program altogether or at least slow it down dramatically. And I think based in sanctions - based on testimony has faded considerably, that people believed that Iran's almost inevitably going to get a nuclear weapon or at least ability to weaponize. And as a result, the world got to deal with the Iranian bomb - either having it or consider other options.

ROBERTS: Mary Louise?

KELLY: I want to jump in and say what struck me, yesterday, from the testimony, was actually that the real focus on cyber attacks.

ROBERTS: Mm-hmm.

KELLY: This is something we have not heard a lot about before, this annual threat assessment. Interesting for all - we've spent a lot of time talking about al-Qaida and they did that at hearing yesterday, but Dennis Blair, the DNI didn't actually mention al-Qaida 'til page seven of his prepared remarks. And he said, he wanted to start focusing on cyber attacks, used much stronger language than I have heard in the news past talking about U.S. information, computer networks, infrastructure. He used the term, severely threatened, to describe that.

ROBERTS: But give our audience a sense of what that means. When we're talking cyber attacks, why is that so threatening?

KELLY: Well, the concern is that we now see more and more attempts targeting both U.S. government Web sites and private sector Web sites. You know, what the DNI Admiral Blair mentioned yesterday - he referred to the recent hacking attacks on Google in China, and said that should be a wake up call, you know? Google has incredible security protocols in place and this managed to happen. He said, you know, in the case of a sustained attack, he was really raising inspector saying, I'm not sure that we could protect these information attacks and keep them up and running. So they appear to be much more worried about this, certainly, than we were hearing a year ago.

ROBERTS: About - worried about crippling the intelligence communities' technological capabilities?

KELLY: Everything from discrete bits of information being taken, which could be, you know, as minor in the grand scheme as somebody's credit card account - certainly not minor if you're the person whose credit card number is being hacked into - to crippling systems. We see the Pentagon's servers, for example, are regularly attacked. They're constantly updating their security protocols, trying to keep that from happening. But this is a growing concern.

ROBERTS: Daniel Byman, what's your take on the cyber attack strength or why that was such a point of emphasis in yesterday's briefing?

Dr. BYMAN: Well, I think the Google troubles highlighted, for many people on the country, and part of that reason for the - part of the reason for making it public is to inform the broader community, the (unintelligible) foreign affairs what the intelligence community is focused on, what they care on. So there's almost a signaling is going on, trying to say that this is a priority and it should be a priority. And it's a way for the community to, kind of, not only warn the policymakers. But to let the broader public know that this is going to be a trouble spot for years to come.

ROBERTS: Well, which brings up the question of why be so public about this? If the threat of al-Qaida is constant, imminent, something that everybody in the intelligence community agrees upon, what advantage is there to making it this public in such a dramatic way? Mary Louise?

KELLY: Well, they - obviously, there is a lot of detail on all of these subjects that they won't get into in an open session, from the nuclear proliferation questions to terrorism to cyber attacks, all of these things.

I think, you know, one potential advantage for the U.S. intelligence officials testifying is if Congress then appropriates their funds. And they do these hearings, they spend a lot of time coming up and agreeing language and figuring out what they're going to focus on. And, hopefully, they will end up moving resources around to address the threats they see as being most imminent.

I mean, another interesting development was that at last year's threat assessment hearing, the number one threat to U.S. National Security was seen then to be the economy - global economic crisis - there was fear that that would lead to unemployment, which would lead to civil unrest, lead to political unrest, all kinds of problems. That hasn't come to pass, or at least not to the extent that they worried it would. So they're able to divert some attention and resources away from that, start thinking about areas where they'd like to pour this in, and ultimately it's Congress that appropriates funds.

ROBERTS: My guest is Mary Louise Kelly, she's NPR's defense correspondent. We're also talking Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown Security Studies Program.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Daniel Byman, let me put that same question to you. What was your sense of the agenda of the people in the intelligence community briefing Congress yesterday?

Dr. BYMAN: Well, part of it is to set priorities for the intelligence community and telegraph those. So when six months from now - nine months from now, and, you know, a problem happens somewhere around the world, people could see either the intelligence community was right or that community can make a case of - or why they put their resources where they did.

But there's another reason. After September 11th, in particular, there was a sense of anger among much of the American population that they weren't warned that people in the intelligence community knew a lot about this threat, but it hadn't percolated into the broader American consciousness. And part of the reason that the intelligence community make things public, even at a rather high level of generality, is to keep the citizenry informed. And at times there is accusation of scaremongering and such, but it's really a way of trying to say that, you know, the citizens should be part of the decision-making process an, for that are things like, you know, formal events such as congressional testimony.

KELLY: I think that's right. And this is one of the very rare opportunities one gets to hear from these people on the record, in public. The press and the public don't get to question them, but the senators, as their proxies, do. Particularly in the Obama administration, we see less and less of the DNI, the head of the CIA, head of the FBI. There's - they are less in the public eye that they have been in past administrations. And so this is one chance to see some accountability, to see how their prioritizing resources, and as Dan says, to see if they got it right.

I mean, they've mentioned the H1N1 virus and how when they testified last year, we didn't know anything about that. Nobody knew that that was already starting to spread at that point, but they were warning about global health epidemics and how that could pose national security threats and what resources we might want to think about moving around. So it serves that function of the public warning and the warning to Congress.

ROBERTS: And what was your - what did the senators telegraph about where their priorities and concerns are?

KELLY: Well, it was a fascinating hearing to watch because we had this thick, 40-something page document with all of the global threats laid out. The senators, at times, seemed more interested in bickering with each other than questioning the witnesses. They spent a lot of time talking about whether it was a good decision to close Guantanamo and how that should be dealt with.

Also, a lot of interest in the alleged Christmas day bomber Abdulmutallab, how he should be prosecuted, the decision to try him in criminal court versus military tribunal, whether it was the right thing to do to read him his Miranda rights. So I've never seen something like this on a Senate Intelligence Committee, which is supposed to not be a political committee on the Hill where they ended up - Republican and Democratic senators bickering among each other and not even spending quite lengthily periods of time not even asking witnesses the questions.

ROBERTS: Also, yesterday, U.S. drones are reported to have dropped at least 17 missiles at suspected terrorism suspects along the Afghanistan-Pakistan borders, so, you know, this - while all of these conversations are happening, actual, you know, war is happening too. Daniel Byman, what can you tell us about the drone attacks?

Dr. BYMAN: Well, the drone program it began in, you know, early in the Bush administration after September 11th and started to really take off towards the end. But we've seen a tremendous acceleration in the pace of drone attacks under Obama, and in particular, in the last month.

This has become, if not the primary, one of the primary means of going after al-Qaida. And the hope is that if you hit the organization hard enough, you take out enough leaders, you disrupt plots, and at the same time that by striking again and again, you force them to play defense so they can't plan, they can't organize, because they are too busy hiding and they can't communicate.

The problem is at times you kill innocents, and doing these strikes has raised a lot of ire in Pakistan where people see it as an American assault on Pakistanis, not as America going after terrorists.

ROBERTS: Mary Louise.

KELLY: I think that's right. I was going to add I was just in Pakistan a week or two ago, traveling with the defense secretary, Secretary Gates, who was there on something of a public goodwill mission, trying - he talked to Pakistani journalists, ordinary Pakistanis, met with as many officials as he could, trying to spread the message of what U.S. interests are in Pakistan, and he's got a lot of push back there. There's a tremendous amount of public anger in Pakistan toward U.S. policy and, in particular, the drone strikes.

ROBERTS: Mary Louise Kelly, NPR defense correspondent, with us here in studio 3A. And Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown University Security Studies Program and a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution on the phone from Maryland. Thank you to both of you.

KELLY: You're welcome.

ROBERTS: Tomorrow, the rise of the alpha wife. Amy Dickinson joins us.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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Correction Feb. 4, 2010

We incorrectly referred to Leon Panetta as the FBI director. Panetta is actually the director of the CIA.

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