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Al-Qaida a Persistent Risk to U.S., Report Says

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin today with a new intelligence report on al-Qaida and the threat it poses to the United States. Among the headlines in that report, al-Qaida will step up efforts to put operatives inside the U.S., and it has rebuilt a secure sanctuary along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The report, prepared by the nation's top intelligence analysts, is also prompting questions as to the exact nature of the relationship between Osama bin Laden's terror network and its affiliate group in Iraq.

Here's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: There is some good news in this report and it judges that al-Qaida does not currently have active cells in the U.S., and the report finds that counterterrorism efforts over the past five years have constrained al-Qaida's ability to attack the U.S.

But the report's lead author, Ted Gistaro of the National Intelligence Council says, al-Qaida leaders desire to attack the U.S. is quote, "undiminished," and they are thinking big.

Mr. TED GISTARO (National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats, CIA): We did come to consensus that when it comes to the homeland, the al-Qaida leadership remains focused on high-profile, high-impact attacks. Things that will cause a lot of casualties and that will have a number of social, economic and political aftershocks.

KELLY: This morning, as Gistaro and other intelligence officials were briefing reporters, the White House was gearing up for its own press conference on the report. The president's Homeland Security Advisor Frances Townsend seized on the National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, as evidence that al-Qaida remains a determined enemy that must be defeated.

Ms. FRANCES TOWNSEND (White House Homeland Security Advisor): The information in these reports is not new. On the contrary, the NIE reinforces the seriousness of the terrorist threat against the homeland, and confirms much what the president has been saying since September the 11th.

KELLY: But here the White House account of the terror threat and the account actually laid out in the NIE seemed to diverge. The question is how Iraq fits into the overall terror threat. The new NIE talks about al-Qaida in Iraq and calls it core al-Qaida's most visible and capable affiliate.

The NIE says core al-Qaida, based in Pakistan, may try to use its Iraqi branch for recruitment or to energize Sunni extremists. But the NIE does not suggest al-Qaida in Iraq has the capability to attack the U.S.

Ted Gistaro.

Mr. GISTARO: The community judges that the overwhelming amount of AQI resources at present are focused on the conflict in Iraq.

KELLY: In other words, their resources are not focused on attacking the U.S. So how to square that with the president's view that, as he puts it, the U.S. is fighting terrorists in Iraq so they won't attack us at home? Critics suggest that the Bush administration is deliberately confusing al-Qaida in Iraq, a group that did not exist before the U.S. invasion with Osama bin Laden's group.

Back at the White House, an exasperated-sounding Fran Townsend argued, there's no confusion. It's the same organization.

Ms. TOWNSEND: I think there's a tendency to try and suggest that al-Qaida core and al-Qaida in Iraq are two separate things. Let's step back for a minute because I think that is not accurate.

KELLY: Reporters at the briefing persisted. Given that the new NIE places the emphasis for concern squarely with the core group in Pakistan, one asked, might it be correct to point to northwest Pakistan as the central front in the war on terror.

Ms. TOWNSEND: Okay. Well, to use the president's phrase, Iraq is the central front in the war on terror.

KELLY: Iraq is the central front in the war on terror has been the consistent argument of the White House for years now. This new intelligence estimate may make that argument a little harder to defend. On other points, though, such as the importance of catching bin Laden, the White House and its intelligence advisers sounded in sync today. Townsend said killing or capturing bin Laden remains the highest priority for this country.

Across town at the intelligence briefing, National Intelligence Council Chair Tom Fingar said of bin Laden and his top deputy, quote, "if we knew where they were, they wouldn't be there anymore."

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.