By Katherine Shrader
The Associated Press
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WASHINGTON – Al-Qaeda is stepping up its efforts to sneak terror operatives into the United States and has acquired most of the capabilities it needs to strike here, according to a new U.S. intelligence assessment, The Associated Press has learned.
The draft National Intelligence Estimate is expected to paint an ever-more-worrisome portrait of al-Qaeda''s ability to use its base along the Pakistan-Afghan border to launch and inspire attacks against the United States over the next several years.
Yet, the government''s top analysts concluded that U.S. soil has become a harder target for the extremist network, thanks to worldwide counterterror efforts since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Among the key findings of the classified estimate, which is still in draft form and must be approved by all 16 U.S. spy agencies:
The U.S. will face “a persistent and evolving terrorist threat” within its borders over the next three years. The main danger comes from Islamic terrorist groups, especially al-Qaeda, and is “driven by the undiminished intent to attack the homeland and a continued effort by terrorist groups to adapt and improve their capabilities.”
Al-Qaeda is probably still pursuing chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and would use them if its operatives developed sufficient capability.
The terror group has been able to restore three of the four key tools it would need to launch an attack on U.S. soil: a safe haven in Pakistan''s tribal areas, operational lieutenants and senior leaders. It could not immediately be learned what the missing fourth element is.
The group will bolster its efforts to position operatives inside U.S. borders. In public statements, U.S. officials have expressed concern about the ease with which people can enter the United States through Europe because of a program that allows most Europeans to enter without visas.
The document also discusses increasing concern about individuals already inside the United States who are adopting an extremist brand of Islam.
On a positive note, analysts concluded that increased international efforts over the past five years “have constrained the ability of al-Qaeda to attack the U.S. homeland again and have led terrorist groups to perceive the homeland as a harder target to strike than on 9/11.”
Those measures helped disrupt known plots against the United States, the analysts found.
National Intelligence Estimates are the most authoritative written judgments that reflect the consensus long-term thinking of senior intelligence analysts.
Government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been finalized, described it as an expansive look at potential threats within the United States and said it required the cooperation of a number of national security agencies, including the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security Department and National Counterterrorism Center.
National security officials met at the White House on Thursday about the intelligence estimate and related counterterrorism issues. The tentative plan is to release a declassified version of the report and brief Congress on Tuesday, one government official said.
Ross Feinstein, spokesman for National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, declined to discuss the document''s specific contents. But he said it would be consistent with statements made by senior government officials at congressional hearings and elsewhere.
The estimate echoes the findings of another analysis prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center earlier this year and disclosed publicly on Wednesday. That report – titled “Al-Qaeda better positioned to strike the West” – found the terrorist group is “considerably operationally stronger than a year ago” and has “regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001,” a counterterrorism official familiar with the reports findings told the AP.
On Thursday, news of the counterterrorism center''s threat assessment renewed the political debate about the nature of the al-Qaeda threat and whether U.S. actions – in Iraq in particular – have made the U.S. safer from terrorism.
At a news conference Thursday, President Bush acknowledged al-Qaeda''s continuing threat to the United States and used the new report as evidence his administration''s policies are on the right course.
“The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq were the ones who attacked us in America on Sept. 11,” he said. “That''s why what happens in Iraq matters to security here at home.”
Yet Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said Iraq has distracted the United States. He said the U.S. should have finished off al-Qaeda in 2002 and 2003 along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Instead, “President Bush chose to invade Iraq, thereby diverting our military and intelligence resources away from the real war on terrorism,” Rockefeller said. “Threats to the United States homeland are not emanating from Iraq. They are coming from al-Qaeda leadership.”
Rockefeller, who voted in favor of toppling Saddam Hussein, called for the U.S. to end its involvement in what he called the Iraqi civil war.
In recent weeks, senior national security officials have been increasingly worried about an al-Qaeda attack in the United States.
Appearing on a half-dozen morning TV shows Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff laid out a list of factors contributing to his “gut feeling” that the nation faces a higher risk of attack this summer: al-Qaeda''s increased freedom to train in South Asia, a flurry of public statements from the network''s leadership, a history of summertime attacks, a broader range of attacks in North Africa and Europe and homegrown terrorism increasing in Europe.
“Europe could become a platform for an attack against this country,” Chertoff told CNN, although he and others continue to say they know of no specific, credible information pointing to an attack here.
National security officials are frustrated by an agreement last year between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and tribal leaders in western Pakistan, which gave tribes near the Afghan border greater autonomy and has led to increased al-Qaeda activity in the region.
Nevertheless, Bush administration officials still view Musharraf as a partner.
Speaking to a congressional hearing, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said that Pakistan under Musharraf has captured more al-Qaeda operatives than any other country and that several major Taliban leaders were captured or killed this year.
“There is a considerable al-Qaeda presence at the border, but they are under pressure,” Boucher told a House national security subcommittee.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., was skeptical, saying al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders apparently feel safe there. “Is this a Motel 6 for terrorists?” he asked.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Lara Jakes Jordan and Barry Schweid contributed to this report.