Director of National Intelligence Says Al-Qaida Remains Top Threat

February 10, 2011 - 6:10 AM

James Clapper, intelligence chief

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. (AP File Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Washington (AP) - Amid criticism that intelligence services missed the signs of Arab revolt in Tunisia and Egypt, the nation's top intelligence official will tell Congress that the threat from al-Qaida and its affiliates remains his No. 1 priority, U.S. officials said.

In testimony scheduled Thursday before the House Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper will stress that counterterrorism to keep Americans safe is the focus of the intelligence community, according to one of those officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.

Clapper is expected to defend how the intelligence community tracked the revolts that have swept through two major American allies in the Arab world, toppling the leader of Tunisia and threatening the regime in Egypt, the officials said.

Lawmakers have questioned whether the focus on al-Qaida and its militant offshoots has weakened the intelligence community's attention toward other parts of the world.

The threat assessment hearing is often described as the most important of the year because the director of intelligence lays out the 16 major intelligence agencies' priorities. It drives the agenda for the intelligence community and the congressional committees that must decide what issues to tackle and what programs to fund.

For the past two years, Clapper's predecessor, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, faced the lawmakers alone. But Clapper has reverted to the previous practice of bringing other top agency chiefs with him. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Clapper will be CIA Director Leon Panetta, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, and the directors of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.

In Blair's last such hearing, he trumpeted cyber-terrorism as the top challenge for the community to tackle.

Clapper will revisit cyber-terror, as well as stressing the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, one official said. But Clapper will focus on the militant threat, just a day after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the House Homeland Security Committee that the terrorist threat to the United States is at its highest level since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. During the same hearing, Leiter said al-Qaida's offshoot in Yemen is "the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland."

The threat assessment hearing is the lawmakers' annual opportunity to put their most pressing questions to the top officials in a public setting. This year, the House Intelligence Committee gets the first crack at them, with the Senate going second.

House Intelligence Committee members are expected to ask whether the intelligence community fumbled its analysis of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. The lawmakers received a classified briefing Tuesday on Egypt and other Middle East hotspots, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.

The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on Tuesday called the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts a "wake-up" for the intelligence community in an interview on MSNBC.

Last week, Feinstein and other senators questioned CIA official Stephanie O'Sullivan over whether the combined U.S. agencies had provided specific warnings that violence was about to unfold.

O'Sullivan said President Barack Obama was warned of instability in Egypt "at the end of last year." She was speaking at her confirmation hearing to become the deputy director of national intelligence, second in command to Clapper.

The senators pressed O'Sullivan to provide a timetable of what intelligence the president was provided and when. The responses will be provided within days, according to an intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.

The hearing will also be a chance for the new House Intelligence Committee chairman, Republican Mike Rogers of Michigan, to lay out his own priorities. Rogers and the top Democrat, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, have said they'll work to tighten oversight of the intelligence community.

Rogers is a former FBI agent who won credit throughout the intelligence community by visiting far-flung CIA and defense intelligence posts in war zones like Afghanistan. He is credited with championing the expanded use of armed drones by the CIA to target militants in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions.

On Wednesday, the offices of Rogers and Ruppersberger announced their committee had voted unanimously to allow a handful of House appropriations committee members and staff to attend classified briefings and hearings so they're better informed about the programs they're voting to fund.

Both lawmakers also hope to pass a bill this year to pay the intelligence budget. The last such bill, caught in a tug of war between Congress and Bush and Obama officials, took six years to become law.

At the top of Rogers' own agenda is a review of the reforms made over the past 10 years to address the intelligence failures that led to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to a copy of his opening remarks, obtained by The Associated Press.

Rogers says he'll work to extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, saying he wants to extend it and "work toward making its tools permanent parts of our arsenal."

Rogers also calls for legislation to address the legal morass of militant detainee issues, including clarifying who can detain a suspect, where they can be held and how they can be questioned.

"We need a system for intelligence exploitation and long-term detention that is flexible and can endure changing circumstances and court challenges, no matter where a detainee is picked up in the world," Rogers says in the prepared remarks.

Rogers says the 25 percent recidivism rate among those released from the U.S. Navy's detention facility for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is disturbing.

"And those are just the ones we know about," he says, implying that the actual figure might be much higher.

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Associated Press writer Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report.