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by Jim Lobe

Bush Coddling The Real Terrorist Threat: Pakistan

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- With key improvements in the security situation in Iraq during 2007, al Qaeda -- and particularly its central leadership based in border regions of Pakistan -- continues to pose the most significant threats to the United States, both at home and abroad, according to the director of national intelligence (DNI), ret. Adm. J. Michael McConnell.

And while the group has suffered major setbacks, particularly in Iraq, during the past year, it has successfully maintained its unity and is improving its ability to attack the United States itself, in part by identifying, training and positioning westerners capable of carrying out such an attack, according to McConnell, who presented the intelligence community's "annual threat assessment" before the Senate Intelligence Committee here Tuesday.

"While increased security measures at home and abroad have caused al Qaeda to view the West, especially the U.S., as a harder target," he told lawmakers, "we have seen an influx of new Western recruits into the tribal areas (in Pakistan) since mid-2006."

Al Qaeda and its affiliates, among the most active and dangerous of which is the Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), remain the most significant threat. However, U.S. intelligence agencies remain concerned about the alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs of both Iran and North Korea and Washington's vulnerability to attacks by both states, non-state or criminal actors on its information infrastructure.

McConnell's 45-page written testimony also expressed concerns about global energy security, including the possibility of "a major oil supply disruption" and its impact on the global economy; and the increased risk of social and political instability in developing countries resulting from the "double impact of high energy and food prices."

The increased cost of both fuel and food, according to McConnell has already "outstripped global aid budgets and adversely impacted the ability of donor countries and organizations to provide food aid," he noted, adding that recent public protests from Mexico to Morocco could portend broader disruptions.

McConnell, who appeared with the directors of Washington's most important intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), also said the intelligence community was worried that major oil exporters, both OPEC and non-OPEC members, including Venezuela and Russia, will use their "windfall profits" to pursue political goals harmful to U.S. interests.

In Tuesday's testimony, CIA director ret. Gen. Michael Hayden acknowledged publicly for the first time that the controversial interrogation technique known as "waterboarding" -- which human rights groups have denounced as torture -- had been used against three senior al Qaeda leaders while they were being held secretly in 2002 and 2003.

His confirmation prompted a call by Human Rights Watch late Tuesday for a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice. Waterboarding, in which the prisoner is made to believe he is drowning, has been prosecuted by U.S. courts as torture since the Spanish-American War 110 years ago.

The annual threat assessment, of which McConnell's testimony represents the unclassified version, is designed to provide an overview to lawmakers of the most important risks to U.S. national security.

McConnell reiterated the main finding of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from last July that al Qaeda has "regenerated its core operational capabilities needed to conduct attacks in the Homeland," primarily through its retention of a safe haven in Pakistan's border areas which serve as a "staging area" for attacks in support of the Taliban in Afghanistan "as well as a location for training new terrorist operatives, for attacks in Pakistan, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the United States."

On Afghanistan, McConnell insisted that NATO, U.S. and Afghan Army forces had scored tactical victories over the Taliban, but that the security situation in the southern part of the country has deteriorated, while Taliban forces have expanded operations into previously peaceful forces in the west and around Kabul.

On Pakistan, a growing concern of U.S. policymakers, McConnell warned that "radical elements have the potential to undermine the country's cohesiveness and that December's assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto could embolden Pashtun militants, many of whom are linked to the Taliban.

On Iran, McConnell stuck closely to the findings of last December's NIE which asserted "with high confidence" that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons design and weaponization activities in the fall of 2003, even while it maintained other programs, including ballistic-missile development and uranium enrichment that could be used for a nuclear weapons program.

Hopes for regime change in Iran and North Korea were unlikely to be realized, at least in the near term, according to McConnell.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iran's various conservative factions, despite growing infighting in the run-up to this year's parliamentary elections, "are expected to maintain control over a politically stable, if economically troubled Iranian state." Record high oil export earnings have placed Iran "on its soundest financial footing since the revolution."

As for North Korea, "the regime appears stable, but persistent economic privation and natural disasters ...and uncertainty about succession arrangements create the potential for domestic unrest with unpredictable consequences."

Elsewhere, he said "Russian national power -- from trade and energy, to diplomatic instruments and military and intelligence capabilities -- are on a path to grow over the next four years."

On Latin America, he said "gradual consolidation of democracy remained the dominant trend over the last year ... but a small group of radical populist governments continues to project a competing vision that appeals to many of the region's poor."

He cited Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and "more tentatively," Ecuador as governments pursuing agendas that weakened democratic institutions. On Cuba, he said the political situation is "likely to remain stable at least in the initial months following Fidel Castro's death and do not expect to see overt signs of major cleavage in the ruling elite..."

As for Africa, he said the situation in the oil-producing Niger Delta "poses a direct threat to U.S. strategic interests in the region. He said Nigeria's "overall political stability remains fragile." Ethiopia and Eritrea, he noted, appear to be preparing for a new war, while the Ethiopian-backed government in neighboring Somalia "is incapable of administering (the country) and probably would flee Mogadishu or collapse if the Ethiopians withdrew.

Meanwhile, "the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region shows few signs of resolution, even if the planned UN peacekeeping force of 26,000 is fully deployed."

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Albion Monitor   February 6, 2008   (

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