Al Qaeda and Iraq were the main subjects when the top leaders of the U.S. intelligence community appeared this morning on Capitol Hill to deliver their annual threat assessment to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, presented a mixed picture of the terrorist threat, citing several key disruptions of plots and killings of top al Qaeda figures but admitting that al Qaeda lieutenants remain capable and dangerous in their "safe haven" in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Perhaps the most unsettling finding was that al Qaeda has seen an influx of new western recruits into the tribal areas since mid-2006, which could increase the risk of attacks inside the United States. The DNI also warned that al Qaeda in Iraq could "shift resources to mounting more attacks outside of Iraq" if its capabilities inside Iraq are further degraded.
The report hit all the usual hot spots, including the deterioration of the security situation in southern Afghanistan, the growing threat from radicals in Pakistan, and North Korea's continuing weapons programs. It also tried to recast the controversial National Intelligence Estimate on Iran from last December that shook Washington with its finding that Iran had closed down a key part of its nuclear weapons program. McConnell pointed out that overt uranium enrichment efforts, which he called "the most difficult challenge in nuclear production," continue unabated.
Deeper in his report, McConnell warned of several other looming threats, including a threat to America's space systems, particularly its satellites. This is a thinly veiled reference to a controversial antisatellite weapons test that China performed a year ago when it shot down one of its own weather satellites.
"Over the last decade, the rest of the world has made significant progress in developing counterspace capabilities," he said. U.S. News explored that growing threat—and what the United States is doing about it—in a recent article.
McConnell also touched on another topic that remains a personal concern for him—the cyberthreat to the nation's infrastructure, both government and civilian.
"Over the past year, cyber exploitation activity has grown more sophisticated, more targeted, and more serious," he said. "The Intelligence Committee expects these trends to continue in the coming year." In particular, he warned that Russia and China "have the technical capabilities to target and disrupt elements of the U.S. information infrastructure and for intelligence collection."