Not a Question of If, But When

The nation’s top defense, diplomatic and intelligence officials blanketed Capitol Hill on Wednesday to urge Congress to adopt President Bush’s budget requests, saying fundamentalist Islamic terrorism represents the greatest threat to the United States and that Americans should take seriously the possibility that al Qaeda or another group will attempt another attack on U.S. soil.

“The extremists continue to plot to attack again,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in prepared remarks to the House Armed Services Committee, making his case for the administration’s request for $419.3 billion in the upcoming budget and leaving the door open to coming back to ask for more.

“They are at this moment recalibrating and reorganizing,” he said. “The future of this conflict is not predictable, so additional funds will have to be requested as required.”

CIA Director Porter Goss, in his first public appearance as the top U.S. spymaster, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the Iraq conflict was not a cause of extremism, but that it had become a cause for extremists. While al Qaeda has been weakened, Goss said, capturing Osama bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would not, in and of itself, stop the threat of an attack against the United States or its allies. And he said it could be “only a matter of time” before Islamic terrorists try to use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons against the United States.

While officials made clear that the war in Iraq continues to be the focus of U.S. efforts overseas, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials also indicated growing concerns about Iran, which has refused U.S. demands that it give up its uranium enrichment program, and which the Bush administration increasingly views as a repressive regime.

Vice Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Iran had the only military operation in the region powerful enough to threaten stability in the Persian Gulf. Its goals were to get the United States out of Iraq and leave the country weakened so as to bolster Iran’s dominance, he said.

“You have a state that’s out of step with where the Middle East needs to go,” Rice told the House Appropriations’ subcommittee on foreign operations. She later told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Iranian leaders “know what they need to do. . . . They need to stop trying to, under cover of a civilian nuclear power program, get a nuclear weapon.”

Rice also had harsh words for Syria, a day after the United States recalled its Syrian ambassador. The nation is widely suspected in Lebanon of having some connection to the bombing assassination this week of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. While Rice stressed there is no proof of responsibility, she told senators that Syria’s continued military presence in Lebanon “does put on the Syrians a special responsibility for the kind of destabilization that happened there and that this sort of thing could happen.”

In appearances before various committees and subcommittees, Rumsfeld, Rice, Goss, FBI Director Robert Mueller and others offered testimony that was heavy on rhetoric as they painted images of insurgents training in Iraq, fanning out across the West and tapping recruits in American prisons and universities.

They offered some specifics about where the proposed spending would go. Rumsfeld detailed plans to build security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, beef up equipment for U.S. forces, give soldiers pay raises, hire more private contractors and buy new aircraft and other equipment. He also responded to criticism over the past several months that U.S. troops were driving around without sufficient protection against insurgent fire, saying that he’d been told that “by this week, with minor exceptions, U.S. military vehicles in Iraq carrying American troops outside of protected areas will have an appropriate level of armor to protect against the most likely threats.”

Officials also outlined concerns about North Korea, which last week declared itself a nuclear power and pulled out of non-proliferation talks, and China, which is building military strength and which officials are concerned could pursue economic and diplomatic ties with countries that oppose U.S. foreign policy.

But officials were admittedly thin on other details members of Congress hoped to hear.

“I know well from my 30 years in public service that you and your colleagues have an important responsibility with these open sessions to get information to the American people,” Goss, a former congressman from Florida, told the Senate Intelligence Committee in his prepared remarks. “But I also know all too well that as we are broadcasting to America, enemies are also tuning in. In open session, I feel I must be very prudent in my remarks.”

Several Republican members of Congress signaled Wednesday that they are not inclined to rubber-stamp the president’s request for $81.9 billion in supplemental spending for Iraq and Afghanistan unless administration officials convince them they can’t wait. Those supplemental requests include money to build a permanent U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Relations, told Rice at one point that Congress would “need more detail on the supplemental requests. We have a lot of detail that’s missing.”

In terms of any attempted attack on U.S. soil, Mueller and Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Fingar told the Senate Intelligence Committee they expect low-tech or relatively low-impact attacks _ perhaps sniper shootings or small explosions _ are more likely than anything on as grand scale as the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. But they said they are concerned about everything from the possible targeting of public transportation systems or power plants to the use of chemical weapons or biological agents.