Senate Hearings Probe Threat of Iran Nuke Program

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The Senate Intelligence Committee hears testimony from top U.S. intelligence officials about threats posed by Iran, including nuclear weapons and other WMDs. Madeleine Brand talks with Mary Louise Kelly, who is covering the hearings.


Iran is high on the list of threats facing the United States; that today from the nation's top intelligence chief, John Negroponte. He testified for the first time before the Senate Intelligence Committee about Iran and other threats facing Americans.

NPR's intelligence correspondent Mary Louis Kelly is at the hearing, and she joins us now. And Mary Louise, what did John Negroponte rank as the greatest threat facing the United States?


Well, this was, as you say, the first time we've heard from Negroponte himself since his confirmation hearing last year, but the message that he had was similar to what we have heard in the past few years, when CIA chiefs have been at the helm of this hearing, and that is, al-Qaeda. That al-Qaeda remains the greatest threat to the United States.

Negroponte was arguing that, despite numerous successes with killing or capturing al-Qaeda leaders, there are a lot still out there. The core leadership is still intact. And this is a public hearing, so we didn't get a lot of detail about the current al-Qaeda threat, and what specifically they may be suspected of being up to, but Negroponte did emphasize this issue of al-Qaeda being very interested in getting non-conventional weapons; chemical, biological, or worst case scenario, nuclear weapons.

And he did put one new number out there. He said that current intelligence reporting indicates that nearly 40 terrorist groups, insurgencies, or cults, he said, that have used or possessed or expressed an interest in getting chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. And many, he said, are actually of capable of conducting simple, small-scale attacks, but attacks nonetheless, such as poisonings.

BRAND: And what did he say about countries such as Iran and North Korea and their threats to the United States?

KELLY: Well, this he named as the second major threat. He said, as we just heard from your reporter in Tehran, that Iran would like to get nuclear weapons; that the current assessment is still that they don't have them yet. But he said even conventional military power in Tehran constitutes still the greatest potential threat to seats in the Persian Gulf, and a major threat to U.S. interests.

On North Korea, he had, I thought he had surprisingly little to say. Similar thoughts as we've heard before from intelligence officials that North Korea probably does have nuclear weapons, and has threatened to use them. But he only spent, it was two paragraphs out of 25 pages of written testimony, about half a page. So, I was surprised he didn't have a few more thoughts on North Korea and that threat, given powers, and, many people believe the threat is from Pyongyang.

BRAND: And today's hearing was focusing on foreign threats to the United States, but I understand there was some discussion about this NSA domestic surveillance story.

KELLY: That's right. Well, the Senate Intelligence Hearing, this is an annual ritual where intelligence officials come and testify. So, it's one of the few forums where senators can put questions on the public record and let people hear what they're asking. So yes, Democrats on the committee have been pushing for hearings, for an investigation of this program that we now know the National Security Agency has been running to intercept calls and emails within the U.S.

Democrats and Republicans, too, certainly, on the committee would like to make sure that these activities are legal. And so, this morning, we heard from Senator Jay Rockefeller, he's the top democrat on the committee. He had some sharp remarks focused at the intelligence officials testifying; he basically accused intelligence officials, including John Negroponte, of withholding information from Congress, of keeping Congress in the dark, and accused them of allowing themselves to be trotted out to defend the White House line.

BRAND: Mary Louise Kelly is NPR's intelligence correspondent.

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