WASHINGTON — Contradicting President Bush's counter-terrorism adviser, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement chiefs and a Cabinet member said Monday that Osama bin Laden remained the most dangerous terrorist threat to the United States six years after the 9-11 attacks.
Eliminating the threat that the al Qaida leader and his inner circle pose from their sanctuary in Pakistan's remote tribal region bordering Afghanistan "is our number one priority," Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told a Senate committee.
The assessments by McConnell, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FBI Director Robert Mueller came a day after White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend called bin Laden "a man on the run from a cave who is virtually impotent other than these tapes."
Townsend was commenting on the release of the first bin Laden video in nearly three years, which surfaced Friday on the Internet. Al Qaida announced Monday on the Internet that another video featuring the terrorist leader will be posted this week to mark the anniversary of 9-11.
McConnell, Chertoff, Mueller and National Counter Terrorism Center Director John Scott Redd appeared before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security to detail measures that have been taken since 2001 to combat domestic and international terrorism along with areas in which U.S. security still requires improvement.
"We are safer than we were on September the 11th, 2001. But we are not safe, and nor are we likely to be for a generation or more," said Redd, a retired admiral whose organization, created in the aftermath of 9-11, is the main U.S. agency for analyzing American intelligence on foreign terrorism threats. "We are in a long war. We face an enemy that is adaptable, dangerous and persistent."
McConnell recalled that a comprehensive U.S. intelligence assessment issued in July warned that the gravest terrorist threat to the United States for the next three years is bin Laden and the plots to attack American targets that he and his lieutenants are hatching in their sanctuary in Pakistan.
"The terrorist threat without question is real," McConnell said.
Mueller said U.S. officials had "tremendous concern" about an al Qaida desire to infiltrate the United States with individual operatives.
Chertoff, whose massive department also was created in the aftermath of 9-11, said bin Laden's latest video and thwarted terrorist plots in Britain, Germany and Denmark were proof that "the enemy is very, very focused on continuing to wage this war."
At the hearing, the witnesses said post-9/11 revisions had tightened U.S. border, airport and port security, improved the collection of intelligence and expanded cooperation and information-sharing among U.S. intelligence agencies and national, state and local law-enforcement agencies.
"Thousands of terrorists have been taken off the field of battle and dozens of plots have been disrupted," Redd said.
Some panel members disputed some of the reported improvements, with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, noting that a recent Justice Department report had found problems with the FBI's terrorist watch list, including a failure to include the names of leading terrorists.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., complained that the Department of Homeland Security paid insufficient attention to the border with Canada. Chertoff said that additional Border Patrol and Customs agents and surveillance aircraft were to be assigned to the northern border, but he agreed that more priority is being given to the border with Mexico.
Chertoff said that more must be done to close security "gaps" that could allow terrorists to smuggle themselves and weapons into the United States. He also announced new steps for screening crews, passengers and cargo on commercial and private aircraft and ships arriving from overseas.