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WASHINGTON — America's top two intelligence officials say al-Qaida is weaker, and U.S. intelligence agencies are smarter, since the Sept. 11 attacks — but the terrorists are nowhere near giving up.
In his first week on the job, CIA director David Petraeus says al-Qaida's recent losses of Osama bin Laden and others has opened "an important window of vulnerability" to exploit.
In remarks Tuesday to a joint congressional intelligence committee hearing, Petraeus predicted al-Qaida leaders may even flee to Afghanistan or leave South Asia altogether to escape the CIA, which has quadrupled covert drone strikes against al-Qaida under the Obama administration.
But Petraeus and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper both say al-Qaida's Yemeni offshoots and others are growing more daring, and dangerous — a sentiment seconded by senators and congressmen in their opening remarks.
House intelligence chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich, warned against dismissing new al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as "feckless," and dismissed suggestions that "the threat of terrorism has significantly waned," saying he feared Americans becoming complacent.
"Are we safer today? I say yes," Senate Intelligence chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. said, in the first since the first combined hearing since Congress' joint inquiry into the attacks of Sept. 11. "More than one-half of al-Qaida's top leadership has been eliminated....Virtually every major al-Qaida affiliate has lost a key leader."
But she warned "there is a metastasizing set of groups," including militants in Pakistan and Yemen, which uses everything from small arms to launch attacks to explosives planted in printer cartridges.
Clapper and Feinstein both complimented the FBI's shift to strengthen its counterterrorist arm.
Rogers introduced a new concept for the much-maligned role of director of national intelligence, calling for the DNI to become an "enabler" rather than a top-down leader, who helps marshal resources but then can stand aside to allow others "to find, fix and finish the target."
Two demonstrators from Code Pink, the anti-war group, held up signs denouncing the CIA's covert drone war against militants in Pakistan. The Obama administration has quadrupled drone attacks since the previous administration, which former top counterterror official Michael Leiter called "the single most effective tool against the group."
Petraeus and his staff ignored the outburst, and the demonstrators were allowed to stay in the committee room.