US counterterror official: Al-Qaida on the defense

WASHINGTON (AP) — Al-Qaida is on the defensive but remains a “significant and present danger” to Americans, according to President Barack Obama’s pick to lead the nation’s top counterterrorism body.

“Al-Qaida in many ways is weakened,” thanks to a decade of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, said Matthew Olsen, speaking Tuesday to a Senate panel weighing his confirmation as director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “We’ve made substantial progress,” but the U.S. must “redouble” its efforts to capitalize on Osama bin Laden’s demise in the Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan on May 2, Olsen said.

Olsen said the threat has spread and diversified beyond the senior al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan, to diffuse groups in places like Yemen and Somalia.

He spoke as the Obama administration warned the public that bin Laden’s death has raised the risk of anti-American violence worldwide.

The State Department said in a global travel warning Tuesday that al-Qaida and other groups are planning terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It warned that Americans should remain vigilant in case of attacks, in the form of suicide operations, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings and bombings.

If confirmed, Olsen will take over as one of the White House’s top terrorism advisors, as the U.S. marks the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The counterterrorism center was formed in the aftermath of Sept. 11 as a way to share and streamline intelligence-gathering among the CIA, FBI and other agencies to head off another terror attack. Olsen is currently the general counsel for the clandestine eavesdropping service, the National Security Agency.

The problem now is almost the opposite of the information deficit that allowed the 9/11 attacks, according to nominee Olsen’s predecessor, Mike Leiter.

Leiter, a holdover from the Bush administration, said in an earlier AP interview that there is now so much data indicating so many threats that it’s difficult to figure out which pose the most clear and present danger.

On Tuesday, influential think tank RAND Corporation released a book highly critical of the U.S. war on terror. “The Long Shadow of 9/11: America’s Response to Terrorism,” a compilation of essays, says the U.S. prosecuted the war on terror in ways that sometimes helped militant groups recruit more followers, such as the detainee abuse committed at Abu Ghraib prison.

Several authors argue that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a mistaken overreach of American power that spent U.S. resources that could have been better focused on al-Qaida.

Eric Larson, a senior policy researcher, says the U.S. is not taking advantage of al-Qaida’s own overreach, in that its use of brutal tactics is backfiring, hobbling its attempt to win the Muslim world over to its more militant view of Islam.

The authors also warn not to exaggerate al-Qaida’s strength. Essayist Brian Michael Jenkins argues the CIA has overblown the nuclear threat from al-Qaida, for instance.

Judging the merits of that analysis and how to respond to it will fall in part to Olsen, if confirmed as the head of the NCTC.

Olsen is a Harvard-trained lawyer, like Leiter. He spent nearly 20 years at the Justice Department, including as deputy assistant attorney general for national security, in charge of overseeing intelligence as part of the post-9/11 reforms to intelligence sharing.

He helped impose stricter oversight measures after the Bush administration’s electronic-surveillance program was exposed.

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