CIA Chief Says Al-Qaida is Plotting Attack on U.S. A new Osama bin Laden videotape surfaced Friday, and Michael Hayden gave a rare speech in New York, saying al-Qaida leaders continue to plot a "high-impact" attack on the United States. The CIA director also defended the government's program of detaining and interrogating prisoners.
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CIA Chief Says Al-Qaida is Plotting Attack on U.S.

Hear NPR's Mary Louise Kelly and Melissa Block

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Osama bin Laden has appeared for the first time in nearly three years in a new videotape that runs about 30 minutes long. American intelligence agencies are scouring the message for clues about the al-Qaida leader's health, his thinking and his whereabouts.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly joins us now.

And, Mary Louise, there were questions about whether this is actually new footage, and I gather intelligence officials are now convinced that it is.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: They are. There are references in here, for example, to French President Sarkozy, who was not the president of France until May, until elections there in May. So there's that - there's some other time references in here that suggests this was made relatively recently, possibly last month.

So now, what you have is the CIA and other intelligence agencies poring over this. They are obviously listening to what he says. Also, looking at other things - how does he look, what's his health like. You can tell from the video that his beard is short and it's very, very black. And before, it's been long and stringy and gray. So this leads one to question perhaps he's dyeing his beard, perhaps it's a fake beard. We don't know.

They'll also be looking at any clues as to his location - who he's with, how was this tape made, anything like that. You'll remember perhaps there was another bin Laden tape, a past videotape in which you could hear a bird chirping faintly in the background. And the CIA had ornithologists called in, analyzing this, trying to figure out, is that particular chirp native to a bird from a particular region of South Asia, that type of things. So they are looking at any little piece of information they can pick up.

BLOCK: Well, we're they able to pinpoint anything about that bird?

KELLY: Not on that one, it didn't work.

BLOCK: He has had, in the past - Osama bin Laden has had very strong messages in these videotapes and audiotapes. What is the message in this one?

KELLY: This one is a big, long ramble. As you said, it runs almost 30 minutes. It is very critical of the Bush administration. It is very critical of U.S. policy in Iraq. Bin Laden's chief message here appears to be that Americans should convert to Islam, and says if Americans want the war in Iraq to end, that they should - we should be converting to Islam. There are significantly no specific threats in here. There is no direct call for an attack, which we have heard from bin Laden in the past. So why are we hearing from him now? We were putting this question to officials today.

And here's what Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had to say on that to my colleague, Pam Fessler.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (U.S. Department of Homeland Security): Obviously, we're analyzing to see, is there a hidden message or a signal on this. But taking on its face, the fact of a video, I think, is more indicative of the upcoming anniversary than it is of any specific actionable information about a threat.

KELLY: So Secretary Chertoff there, alluding to the 9/11 anniversary, which is coming, of course, next week. And we know that in the past, al-Qaida has liked to mark that anniversary with some sort of tape or other message.

BLOCK: Right. And in the past, when Osama bin Laden has issued statements, they often have been followed by attacks. But as you say, no indication in this tape that he is calling on anything to happen.

KELLY: No. And what U.S. intelligence officials today are saying is, yes, there is a lot of chatter going on. We have this tape. There are other messages out there. There's a lot of little things that they're listening to and trying to figure out. But they are insisting nothing that is both specific and credible that points to an attack in the works.

Now, of course, there are big holes in what U.S. intelligence knows. CIA Director Michael Hayden admitted as much today. He was giving a previously scheduled speech in New York. He was asked about this tape. And he said the CIA does not actually know whether al-Qaida has managed to move operatives inside this country.

Here's a little bit more of what he had to say today about al-Qaida.

Mr. MICHAEL HAYDEN (Director, Central Intelligence Agency): We do see them working to train people whom you and I wouldn't raise an eyebrow about if they were getting off the plane with us at Kennedy; people whose identity makes it easier, whose persona makes it easier for them to come in to America and to blend in to American society. That's going on. And that willingness to attack the homeland by every source and method is in no way diminished.

KELLY: So what he's skirting, not quite saying, there is that al-Qaida is recruiting people who do not Middle Eastern, who don't fit that stereotype of terrorist that we've come to see in the United States.

BLOCK: Mary Louise, we said that it's been three years since Osama bin Laden last released a videotape. There have been audiotapes since then. What are people in the intelligence community saying about why it's been so long?

KELLY: There are several theories for this among intelligence analysts. In the past, there's been a theory that he was too sick, or that he was perhaps saving himself up for a really big hit that he didn't want to dilute his impact. And then there's the security element here. As we've said, every time he releases a tape, he may inadvertently be giving away some piece of information that could prove critical to tracing back to where he is, to where he's moving around, what people are with him.

BLOCK: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, thanks very much.

KELLY: You're welcome.

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