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Extremists using Iraq for recruitment and training, CIA chief says

WASHINGTON—Iraq has become a training ground for extremists who'll take their experience in urban terrorism with them to other countries, the head of the CIA said Wednesday.

"Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists," CIA Director Porter Goss told the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence in his first Capitol Hill appearance as the agency's chief. They will "leave Iraq experienced in and focused on acts of urban terrorism. They represent a pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks."

Goss and FBI Director Robert Mueller appeared before the normally secretive committee in its annual hearing to discuss global threats, and their testimony suggested that Iraq may pose a bigger terrorist threat now than it did before the U.S.-led invasion nearly two years ago.

Both also suggested that al-Qaida remains a threat despite the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and an aggressive global war on terrorism. The ongoing threat of al-Qaida in the United States, efforts by terrorist groups to obtain nuclear materials, and nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea pose tough challenges for U.S. spy agencies in the next year, Goss and Mueller said.

"We need to make some tough decisions about which haystacks deserve to be scrutinized for the needles that can hurt us most," Goss said.

Mueller said Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network is "still the most lethal threat we face today" and destroying al-Qaida "is also one of our most difficult challenges."

Goss said al-Qaida remains intent on finding ways around America's improved security system.

"It may be only a matter of time before al-Qaida or another group attempts to use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons. We must focus on that," Goss said. He added, however, that low-tech attacks using conventional materials remained a greater short-term threat.

Goss said that no one factor, including the capture of bin Laden or his top lieutenant, would end the al-Qaida threat.

Much of the hearing dealt with uncertainty. Those who testified were at times unable to answer questions and offered to answer other questions in a later closed hearing dealing with classified information.

That frustrated several senators, including ranking committee Democrat Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who pressed Goss on whether terrorists may have acquired enough stolen nuclear material from Russia to make a weapon. Goss said he couldn't assure Americans that they hadn't.

The nuclear capabilities of Iran and North Korea were also hard to pin down. Both nations pose potential nuclear threats. North Korea last week declared itself a nuclear power, but American officials don't know specifically what weapons it may have. American officials believe Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons, but hasn't done so yet.

Iran continues to be a state sponsor of terror and is believed to be assisting elements of the ongoing insurgency in Iraq, Goss said. Despite negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, "we do not have transparency" in monitoring technology that could be used in weapons production, Goss said.

The public hearing was the first held in the Senate since Congress last year passed a comprehensive intelligence reform package creating a director of national intelligence, a post yet to be filled.

Rockefeller accused the Bush administration of foot-dragging.

But committee chairman Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said that getting the right person for the job was important. Roberts said a top concern this year is examining the quality of information that agencies are gathering so that policy-makers can make better-informed decisions on handling global hot spots than they have in the past.

"We cannot and should not always take the intelligence community's assessments at face value," he said.

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(Bjerga reports for The Wichita Eagle.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TERROR-THREATS

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