ARI SHAPIRO, host:
It's been seven years since the 9/11 attacks, and the al-Qaeda terror network remains, in the words of CIA Director Michael Hayden, the most clear and present danger to the United States today. This is the first presidential handover during wartime in 40 years. And yesterday, Hayden said his agency is aiming for the smoothest transition in recorded history. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN: Except for appearances on Capitol Hill, it's rare for the CIA director to discuss al-Qaeda in public at length. Speaking at the Atlantic Council yesterday, Michael Hayden said the date and the topic were set months ago, and it was only a coincidence he was describing the al-Qaeda threat just as the country was changing presidents. His assessment was sober but balanced. The network, he said, has been disrupted by counter-terror efforts, but is still the number one US enemy. If there is a major strike on this country, he said, it will bear the fingerprints of al-Qaeda. The network has operations from North Africa to Southeast Asia, but the most dangerous al-Qaeda bases are in the tribal regions along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.
Mr. MICHAEL HAYDEN (CIA Director): All the threats we have to the West have a thread that takes them back to the tribal region. It may be training, it may be command and control, it may be financing, but there is at least one, and in some cases many threads that take them back there.
GJELTEN: Al-Qaeda organizers have made alliances with extremist Taliban groups in Pakistan, supporting their causes, funding their operations, even marrying their women. From those bases in Pakistan, al-Qaeda is plotting new attacks in the US and Europe, Hayden said - recruiting Westerners who could carry out a plot with less chance of being detected. Some observers believe al-Qaeda would like to attack during this critical presidential transition when US defenses may be down. But wanting to and being able to are not the same thing, Hayden says.
Mr. HAYDEN: This is not an omnipotent enemy. This is an enemy whose actions we can affect by the actions we take. In many ways, we've been taking those actions and keeping them off balance. So that even if al-Qaeda had this strong wish to do something between Date X and Date Y, it's another thing to do it beyond just the wish.
GJELTEN: Hayden went so far as to say there's still no evidence that al-Qaeda is up to something special during this transition period.
Mr. HAYDEN: We are chugging along with the threat as I described it, and I do not see any real or artificial spike because of the American political process.
GJELTEN: The hunt for Osama bin Laden is still a top CIA priority, according to Hayden. Bin Laden's death or capture, he said, would erode the confidence of his al-Qaeda followers. So why hasn't bin Laden been caught? Consider the territory where he's hiding, Hayden says, rugged and inaccessible.
Mr. HAYDEN: Part of the explanation for his survival lies in the fact that he has worked to avoid detection. He is putting a lot of energy into his own survival, a lot of energy into his own security. In fact, he appears to be largely isolated from the day-to-day operations of the organization he nominally heads.
GJELTEN: In recent months, there have been new efforts by the CIA and the US military to pursue al-Qaeda in the hills of Pakistan, including missile strikes from unmanned drone aircraft and even commando raids by US Special Forces. The Pakistani government has vigorously objected. But Hayden notes that he met recently with the head of Pakistan's intelligence service and found that there is more commonality of purpose between the two nations than is normally assumed.
As for his own future, Hayden noted that the CIA director serves at the pleasure of the president. We think we're doing some things well, he said, and he would seriously consider staying at the agency if asked to do so. But that's the decision of the president-elect, Hayden said. Barack Obama has not yet signaled his intentions, but he is already getting advice from fellow Democrats. At the very time Michael Hayden was speaking yesterday, Democratic Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin put out a statement saying it's time for new leadership in the intelligence community. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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