CIA Chief Says U.S. Has Maintained Focus on al Qaeda

By Donna Miles

Both the Clinton and Bush administrations "cared deeply about the challenge of terrorism" and were committed to disrupting the al Qaeda network, the nation’s director of central intelligence told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States here today.

"There was no lack of care or focus in the face of one of the greatest dangers our country has ever faced," George Tenet told the "Sept. 11 Commission" on its second day of hearings about events leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "But despite these efforts," he said, "we still did not penetrate the plot that led to the murder of 3,000 men and women on that Tuesday morning."

Tenet told the commission the lessons of Sept. 11 drive home the point that "as a country, you must be relentless on offense." But there’s another key component, he said: "A defense that links visa measures, border security, infrastructure protection and domestic warnings" – all in a way that "increases security, closes gaps and serves a society that demands high levels of both safety and freedom."

The director said the United States has made steady progress on both fronts, but acknowledges that "much more work needs to be done" in light of the terrorist threat. Tenet, who worked for both administrations, told commission members the CIA first became concerned about Osama bin Laden in 1996, after he moved from Sudan to Afghanistan.

"We characterized him as one of the most active financial sponsors of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism," he said. In response, Tenet said, the CIA created a dedicated component in its Counterterrorism Center, the Bin Laden Issue Station, dedicated to disrupting his operations. "We also issued the earliest of what turned out to be a long series of warnings about bin Laden and al Qaeda," Tenet said. "And I believe those warnings were heeded."

Bin Laden became a more pervasive threat in Afghanistan, which Tenet told the commission "had become a haven where terrorists could disseminate their ideology, plot, fundraise and train for attacks around the world." In 1999, after bin Laden called on Muslims to kill Americans and their allies, Tenet said, the CIA began developing a new plan to develop human and technical resources to track him.

As a result, Tenet said, intelligence "rose markedly" through 2001. Working with a coalition of countries, Tenet said the United States was able to disrupt terrorist attacks against the United States and save lives.

In its effort to crack down on terrorism, Tenet said, the CIA and the worldwide coalition arrested or detained 45 Hizballah network members in East Asia and broke up cells planning attacks against civilian targets in the Persian Gulf.

Tenet said a "rash of intelligence reports" during the summer of 2001 intensified the CIA’s coordination with U.S. allies committed to combating terrorism. Suspected terrorists were arrested and detained, and terrorist activities were disrupted in two dozen countries, he said. Weapons caches were uncovered, and plans to attack U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East and Europe were halted, the director added.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Tenet said, the Bush administration "was working hard … to devise a comprehensive framework to deal with al Qaeda, based on the best knowledge that we in the intelligence community could provide." But despite all these efforts, both at home and overseas, Tenet acknowledged to the commission that "we collectively did not close these gaps rapidly or fully enough before Sept. 11."

Since that day, Tenet said, the CIA has worked hard to enhance intelligence and improve "integration" within the government. He said the agency has strengthened its ties to law enforcement agencies and broken down walls that impede interagency cooperation.

A new Terrorist Threat Integration Center is up and running, and the government is filling what the director called "critical gaps we had in our process of ‘watchlisting’ potential terrorists."

"We have learned, and are doing better, in an integrated environment that allows us to respond faster and more comprehensively than three years ago," Tenet told the commission. "And much more work needs to be done."