CIA director Michael Hayden has come under stiff challenge for portraying Al-Qaeda as on the defensive after global setbacks, even in its safe havens along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Jay Rockefeller, said Friday that Hayden’s upbeat appraisal was not consistent with intelligence assessments provided to his committee over the past year.
“In fact, I have seen nothing, including classified intelligence reporting, that would lead me to this conclusion,” Rockefeller said in a scathing letter to the Central Intelligence Agency director.
Hayden’s assessment — one of the most positive since the September 11, 2001 attacks — comes less than a year after US intelligence warnings that Al-Qaeda had regrouped in the border area and was plotting attacks against the west.
“On balance, we are doing pretty well,” Hayden told the Washington Post in an interview published Friday, while warning that Al-Qaeda remains a serious threat.
The list of accomplishments, he said, includes: “Near strategic defeat of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for Al-Qaeda globally — and here I’m going to use the word ‘ideologically’ — as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam.”
But Rockefeller cited a litany of public statements by top intelligence officials over the past year that emphasized Al-Qaeda’s regeneration in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Earlier this month, the acting director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center, Michael Leiter, told lawmakers that US efforts had not succeeded in stopping “core Al-Qaeda plotting.”
“We’re better at disrupting it, but we have not disrupted the senior leadership that exists in the FATA, and we have also not stopped the organization from promulgating a message which has successfully gained them more recruits,” Rockefeller quoted him as saying.
In response, CIA spokesmand George Little said that had the senator’s office waited for a response from the agency before publicly releasing its letter, the matter could have been handled with ease.
“The director simply said in his interview that progress has been made against Al-Qaeda, which remains a very dangerous foe,” Little pointed out. “That judgment should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the intelligence.”
Meanwhile, Bruce Riedel, a longtime former CIA analyst now with Brookings Institution, called Hayden’s remarks “a pretty large dish of wishful thinking.”
“I think that the administration very much wants to paint a picture of success, particularly as it gets close to the end of eight years,” he said.
“So I’m not surprised we’re seeing an effort to portray it in the most optimistic possible way,” he said.
Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri remain at large, and US intelligence estimates in July 2007 said Al-Qaeda had generated a new leadership cadre in Pakistan.
Tom Sanderson, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Hayden appeared to be drawing on undisclosed evidence that shows Al-Qaeda’s leadership is reeling.
“Nonetheless, it does take people by surprise, even people who are monitoring this, that there is such a stark difference between the assessment last year, with significant though not overwhelming tactical successes in the interim,” he said.
Hayden said Al-Qaeda has lost three senior officers this year, including two who succumbed “to violence.” The Post said that was an apparent reference to strikes by unmanned Predator aircraft that killed Abu Laith al-Libi and Abu Sulayman al-Jazairi.
“The ability to kill and capture key members of Al-Qaeda continues, and keeps them off balance — even in their best safe haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border,” Hayden added.
Hayden said bin Laden is also losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Islamic world and has largely lost his ability to exploit the Iraq war to recruit new members.
Riedel said that while Al-Qaeda has suffered serious setbacks in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, there was a danger in “glossing over some of Al-Qaeda’s remarkable strengths.”
“The safe haven that they have developed in Pakistan over the last two or three years is getting bigger, not smaller, and that safe haven is the most important thing for Al-Qaeda,” he said.
It was from Pakistan that Al-Qaeda launched attacks in western Europe, including the 2005 attacks on the London underground and a 2006 attempt to bring down 10 jumbo jets over the Atlantic.
A posting on jihadist website al-Hesbah threatened an attack bigger than September 11 before President George W. Bush leaves office, according to the SITE intel group.