U.S. intelligence chiefs deliver good news and bad

January 31, 2012

Decapitation strikes killed Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders in the past year but new, even more dire threats loom – among them a nuclear-armed Iran or paralyzing cyber-attacks – President Barack Obama's top intelligence chiefs warned Tuesday.

The killing of top al-Qeada leaders marginalized the group's operational threat, said James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence.

"As long as we sustain the pressure on it, we judge that core al-Qaeda will be of largely symbolic importance to the global jihadist movement," Mr. Clapper said in delivering his annual written assessment.

That was part of the good news in the threat assessment delivered to the Senate select intelligence committee. The other good news was that U.S. intelligence analysts believe Tehran hadn't decided – yet – to build nuclear weapons.

There was plenty of bad news.

North Korea remains a bizarre and unpredictable nuclear proliferator. Regime collapse in Syria may spark war across the Middle East. Tehran's ruling mullahs retain the option of tipping missiles with nuclear warheads, and Pakistan remains a nightmarish ally.

Even the tentative, democratic shoots of civil societies flowering as a result of the Arab Spring carry risks despite the welcome toppling of ruthless regimes. "As the ancient historian Tacitus once observed, the best day after a bad emperor is the first," Mr. Clapper said. "After that, I would add, things get very problematic."

Worse, soon, perhaps very soon, the gravest danger to America won't be Islamic jihadists attempting mass attacks but shadowy cyber-warriors capable of destroying the nation's electrical grid, not just collapsing a skyscraper.

The truly dire news was saved for the intelligence committee's closed sessions.

"Stopping terrorist attacks ... is the No. 1 priority," FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate select intelligence committee. "But down the road, the cyber-threat will be the No. 1 threat."

In the open hearing, the top security officials basked in some triumphs. "Any time the top three leaders of the most significant terrorist organization that faces us are taken out, that, needless to say, is a banner year," said David Petraeus, the retired general and commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan who now heads the Central Intelligence Agency.

Lone wolves and self-radicalized jihadists, including some already living in America, now pose a greater threat than a planned "spectacular" like the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide plane hijackings, the assessment said. And regional al-Qaeda branches, including those in Yemen and Somalia, are more dangerous that the decapitated al-Qaeda remnants in Pakistan.

Iran, long hostile to the United States, may turn to terrorism and subversion in response to intense American pressure and sanctions, Mr. Clapper warned in his prepared assessment.

"Some Iranian officials – probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime," he said.

But, the intelligence assessment concluded, Tehran has yet to make the fateful decision to make nuclear weapons. "Without going into sensitive areas here ... enrichment of uranium to a 90-per-cent level would be a pretty good indicator of their seriousness," Mr. Clapper said.

So far, Iran has enriched to levels beyond what is needed for power generation but well short of weapons-grade levels.

On Afghanistan, the intelligence bosses attempted to sound hopeful, even as they admitted much could go wrong as America and its allies pull out the more than 100,000 foreign troops currently propping up the corrupt and shaky regime led by President Hamid Karzai.

"The Taliban remains a resilient, determined adversary," Mr. Clapper said, under questioning by senators. "I don't think anyone harbours any illusions about it, but I think the position is to at least explore the potential for negotiating with them as a part of this overall resolution of the situation in Afghanistan."

Talking to the Taliban, even without a ceasefire or assurance that they will abide by Afghanistan's constitution, now appears firmly on President Obama's strategic agenda.

The intelligence chiefs also agreed that the release of five top Taliban leaders – currently held in Guantanamo – would be acceptable as long as they went to Qatar, where the Taliban plans to open an office to negotiate, rather than Afghanistan or Pakistan, they said.

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