(CNSNews.com) - The former top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said al Qaeda is a real and growing threat to the United States.
"This is a very dangerous world. It's an era of terror, and fixing this problem will not be easy," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) at a briefing held by the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
"We can see in regions there is now al Qaeda ... there will surely be an umbrella group in Europe and possibly [a group] here," she said, noting that "car bombings and suicide bombings are likely to be in our future."
"Over the last six years and one day, al Qaeda has changed considerably," Harman added. "Instead of a top-down organization, there is a loose horizontal affiliation among many groups, and they are everywhere.
"They have attacked in Europe, and there have been a number of arrests in Europe as well ... but there have been arrests here too over the years," she said. "There have been arrests, but no attacks."
Harman noted that "we are much more capable since 9/11," but the reason we have yet to see terrorist attacks in the United States since 2001 is because "they've been trying to pull off something more spectacular, and that's not proved possible."
But, she said, "I think Iraq has sucked the oxygen out of almost everything.
"I think our preoccupation in Iraq has prevented us from keeping our eye on capturing" Osama bin Laden, she said, adding that "he continues to serve as the inspirational figure in a movement that has metastasized."
Harman also said the United States needed to do more to stop al Qaeda, particularly in Pakistan. The current regime in Pakistan has not done enough, she said, to "capture the al Qaeda presence in the tribal areas."
"Westerners are going there to be trained and then ... join homegrown terror cells," she said. "We need a better policy for finding al Qaeda in these conflict areas."
America also must do more to stop al Qaeda from acquiring a nuclear weapon or even a simple "dirty" nuclear device, said Harman.
"It's very hard to monitor nuclear proliferation," she said. "I truly worry that it isn't that hard to get small amounts of [radiological] materials... and put them with two sticks of dynamite and contaminate two square kilometers of downtown Manhattan."
In a recent press briefing, however, White House Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend noted that "two-thirds of al Qaeda's leadership from 9/11 has been captured or killed."
The U.S. government's focus on the al Qaeda threat "is not new," said Townsend.
The U.S. has not been attacked in the last six years, "because the president has made clear that job number one is to protect the American people from an attack, and his strategy for doing this has been clear and unambiguous," she said.
"We have gone on the offensive, attacking our enemies and the things that they need to operate and survive," she said.
"We have strengthened our defenses through a host of homeland security programs, including increasing our intelligence, military and law enforcement resources, ensuring greater information sharing with state and local officials, increasing grant programs, protecting critical infrastructure, and strengthening our border security," Townsend said.
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