Senate Panel Hears Assessment of Threats to U.S.

Senators question the United States' top intelligence chief, John Negroponte. He and other officials appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss the threats facing the United States worldwide. But some committee members wanted to debate a controversial wiretapping program.

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The country's top intelligence officer appeared before Congress today to give an assessment of worldwide threats to the United States. National Director of Intelligence John Negroponte was joined by senior officials from agencies including the FBI, the CIA and Homeland Security. It was an opportunity to update the Senate Intelligence Committee on potential threats. But some members of the committee wanted to debate a controversial wire tapping program.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

This was John Negroponte's first public appearance before a congressional panel since accepting the position as National Director of Intelligence last April. His 25-page report, which took well over an hour to read, was a laundry list of all the threats the United States faces. At the very top of the list is al-Qaeda. Negroponte says the terror network is hobbled but still dangerous.

Mr. JOHN NEGROPONTE (U.S. National Director of Intelligence): The organization's core elements still plot and make preparations for terrorist strikes. They also have gained added reach through their merger with the Iraq based network of Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, which has broadened al-Qaeda's appeal within the Jihadist community and potentially put new resources at its disposal.

NORTHAM: Negroponte said terror networks in areas such as Africa and Southeast Asia also present a threat, as do nuclear concerns over Iran and North Korea. Narcotics, even an influenza pandemic, also made the list. Republican senators were quick to praise Negroponte for the breadth of his report. But with the cream of the intelligence and law enforcement agencies sitting before them, Democrats didn't want to squander the opportunity to ask about President Bush's domestic eavesdropping program. Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin wanted to know how many conversations had been monitored.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Is it a few or is it thousands?

General MICHAEL MAPLES (Deputy Director of National Itelligence): Sir I'd, I'd be very uncomfortable talking about it in, in open session.

Senator LEVIN: Do you know?

General HAYDEN: I can't give you a precise --

Senator LEVIN: I didn't ask for a precise one, General. You keep saying precise and I keep saying estimate. General Maples, do you know?

General MICHAEL MAPLES (U.S. Armay): Sir, we do not.

Mr. LEVIN: Do you know, Ambassador Negroponte? Do you have an estimate of the number of those communications?

Mr. NEGROPONTE: No sir.

Mr. LEVIN: All right.

NORTHAM: Negroponte, like the other intelligence officials defended the program and appeared concerned that the existence of the warrantless wireless tap program had been leaked to the press. CIA Director Porter Goss said he feared there was an erosion in the culture of secrecy that's so important in intelligence gathering.

Mr. PORTER GOSS (CIA Director): And I'm sorry to tell you that the damage has been very severe to our capabilities to carry out our mission. I use the words, very severe, intentionally.

NORTHAM: Goss told the intelligence committee that he'd called in the FBI and the Department of Justice. He hopes reporters will be pulled before a grand jury to be asked to reveal who is leaking sensitive information.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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