"An attempted attack,
the priority is certain, I would say," Director of National
Intelligence Dennis Blair told the Senate Select Committee on
CIA director Leon Panetta and FBI director Robert Mueller both told the committee they agreed with Blair's stark assessment, when
asked by committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Blair and Panetta both said it is becoming more difficult to identify the threat posed by an evolving al Qaeda, which has become more reliant on its regional terror networks to conduct attacks.
"We have made the complex, multiple-team attacks very difficult for al
Qaeda to pull off," Blair said. "As we saw with the recent successful
and attempted terrorist attacks, however, identifying individual
terrorists, small groups with short histories using simple attack
methods is a new degree of difficulty.
"We did not identify [Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab] before he boarded Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. We should have," he said.
Panetta shared Blair's assessment of the al Qaeda threat as something that has changed since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,
when four coordinated groups of terrorists hijacked separate airliners
to crash them in New York and Washington.
"My greatest concern and what keeps me awake at night is that al Qaeda
and its terrorist allies and affiliates could very well attack the
United States in our homeland," the CIA director said. "The biggest
threat I see is not so much that we face another attack similar to
9/11. I think the greater threat is that al Qaeda is adapting their
methods in ways that oftentimes make it difficult to detect."
Al Qaeda has found new safe havens and established "regional nodes in places like Yemen and Somalia, the Maghreb [North Africa] and
others," he said.
Panetta also warned that he is becoming increasing concerned about threats from "lone wolf" terrorists who act on their own without
any central planning from an established terror network such as al
He cited the case of Ft. Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan as one such case of a "lone wolf" terrorist.
"So it's the lone-wolf strategy that I think we have to pay attention
to as a threat to this country," he said. "We are being aggressive at
going after this threat. We've expanded our human intelligence. We are
engaging with our liaison partners in other countries to try to track
these kinds of threats."
The threat warning comes amid an ongoing debate over how the Obama administration and the Justice Department handled the case of
Abdulmutallab, accused of attempting to set off a bomb on Christmas Day
on Northwest flight 253, and whether the case should have been handled
in the criminal justice system.
Abdulmutallab is still being interrogated by FBI agents and is
providing useful information to investigators, even though he was read
his Miranda rights the day after the attempted bombing of flight 253,
The issue over providing Abdulmutallab the Miranda rights required in the criminal justice system has become a political issue
among some Republican members in Congress, who assert that the Obama
administration should have moved the terror suspect into the military
tribunal process so he could be interrogated for intelligence.
Justice Department officials have said that Abdulmutallab decided to stop speaking with federal investigators the day after the
attempted bombing, even before he was given a Miranda warning by FBI
During questioning from Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, Mueller became agitated over the politicization of the case.
"I encourage you to look at what has happened since then," he said.
"And it is a continuum in which, over a period of time, we have been
successful in obtaining intelligence not just on day one, but day two,
day three, day four, day five and down the road. And so I encourage you
to look at it as a continuum as opposed to looking at is as a snapshot
of what happened on one day."
Sources tell ABC News that FBI agents went to Nigeria and identified influential members of Abdulmuttallab's family who disagreed
with what he did, and then brought them back to the United States to
talk with him.
At Tuesday's hearing Blair said of the case, "The balance structure in the Mutallab case was understandable and balanced. We got
good intelligence. We're getting more."
According to Justice Department and counterterrorism officials, the accused Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operative has provided
some details about his handlers in Yemen and others who were training
The discussions between Abdulmutallab, his lawyers and federal investigators began last week as Justice Department officials explored
the possibility of offering Abdulmutallab a plea deal in exchange for
his cooperation and information he has about the terror network.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the plea discussions, and Abdulmutallab's attorney Miriam Siefer did not reply
to an email message.
Sen. Kit Bond, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee told Blair he disagreed with the conclusion that the case was handled
"There should be a decision made after consultation with the relevant
agencies and the intelligence community when an enemy combatant comes
in, before the Department of Justice gives the order to Mirandize him,"
the Missouri Republican said. "He's an enemy combatant and the decision
ought to be made by the intelligence -- with the participation of the
The decision to issue a Miranda warning to Abdulmutallab was reached by the FBI's chief of counterterrorism in conjunction with
Justice Department attorneys, Mueller said.
Since the attempt to bring down flight 253, both Republicans and
Democrats have questioned how the Justice Department handled the case,
but Feinstein today said decisions should be made on a case-by-case
"Candidly, my view is that the president should have the flexibility to make a determination based on the individual
circumstances of the case -- the location of the terrorist activity,
the location of the arrest, the nationality of the suspect, whether
federal crimes or law of armed conflict have been violated," Feinstein