WASHINGTON -- Terrorists could try to strike again soon in the United States, FBI Director Robert Mueller says, while offering little assurance the agency can thwart the next attack. CIA Director George Tenet says the current situation is comparable to the summer before Sept. 11.
"I have a hard time telling the country that you should be comfortable, that we've covered all the bases, in the wake of what we saw they were able to accomplish on Sept. 11," Mueller told the House and Senate Intelligence committees Thursday.
Tenet testified: "You must make the analytical judgment that the possibility exists that people are planning to attack you inside the United States -- multiple simultaneous attacks. We are the enemy, we're the people they want to hurt inside this country."
At a hearing called to look back at what intelligence agencies did right and wrong before Sept. 11, many lawmakers focused on the future: How likely is another attack and how prepared are U.S. officials to respond to it?
The answers Mueller and Tenet gave were sobering.
"You must make the assumption that al-Qaida is in an execution phase and intends to strike us both here and overseas," Tenet said, noting recent attacks in Kuwait and Indonesia and off Yemen. "That's unambiguous as far as I'm concerned."
Tenet said Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has already taken defensive measures "in specific areas where the intelligence was most credible and in sectors where we're most worried about." He didn't identify them.
The nationwide alert level remains code yellow, or "significant risk of terrorist attacks," because officials do not have specific details on where and when an attack may occur, Homeland Security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. Yellow is the third-highest of five threat levels.
Last week, the FBI and several federal agencies overseeing certain high-risk sectors such as transportation, energy and agriculture sent warnings urging extra precautions.
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., noted intelligence warnings that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein could order terrorist attacks against Americans if the United States invades his country.
"I'm concerned that we are not prepared for that, particularly not prepared here inside the United States," Graham said in an interview.
Mueller said the FBI is focusing on the threat of terrorists who would use military action against Iraq as a pretext to strike. But he said an attack as meticulously planned and executed as the Sept. 11 hijackings would be hard to stop.
At Thursday's hearing, Tenet offered his most detailed public accounting to date of what the CIA did to stop Osama bin Laden's terrorist network before Sept. 11. He said his agency has saved thousands of lives by successfully stopping terrorist attacks, but admitted some mistakes were made.
Tenet said the CIA was convinced months before the Sept. 11 hijackings that bin Laden was plotting to kill large numbers of Americans, but the intelligence available was "maddeningly short" of details.
"The most ominous reporting hinting at something large was also the most vague," he said.
The session was last of five weeks of public hearings, part of the committees' inquiry into intelligence failures leading up to the attacks. A final report will be issued in coming months.
Tenet, Mueller and National Security Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden rejected criticism by inquiry staff that U.S. counterterrorism efforts were hampered by a failure to share information and that they hadn't made fighting terrorism a high enough priority before the attacks.
Tenet highlighted agency successes, many of them long secret, including the thwarting of planned attacks in Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Tenet also said the CIA lost 18 percent of its budget and 16 percent of its personnel in post-Cold War cutbacks.
But even before he spoke, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Whip from California, said: "It's not enough to say we didn't have enough money or enough people. No one does. That's always the case. It's about establishing priorities."
Tenet also clashed with the committees in an area in which he admitted mistakes: the CIA's failure to put two future Sept. 11 hijackers on watch lists preventing their entry into the United States after they were first associated with al-Qaida, in early 2000. They weren't placed on the lists until a few weeks before the attacks. Tenet said the CIA had alerted the FBI in January 2000 that one of the hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, had a U.S. visa; the inquiry staff director said no evidence has been found showing the FBI was told about the visa.
After Tenet said that apparently no one at CIA headquarters had read a cable that said al-Mihdhar had flown to Los Angeles, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked if that was a mistake.
"Yes. Of course. In hindsight," Tenet responded.
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