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Nominee to lead post 9-11 counterterror center: al-Qaida on the defensive but still a threat
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.
He said the threat has spread and diversified beyond the senior leadership in Pakistan, to diffuse groups in places like Yemen and Somalia.
Olsen is currently the general counsel for the clandestine eavesdropping service, the National Security Agency. If confirmed, he will take over 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.
The problem now is almost the opposite of that which caused 9/11, according to nominee Olsen's predecessor, Mike Leiter, who chose to leave after serving two administrations in almost five years at the round-the-clock post. Leiter said in an earlier AP interview that there is 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 missteps include overconfidence in rebuilding Afghanistan, launching a war in Iraq that did little to weaken al-Qaida, and actions that helped militant groups recruit more followers, like the detainee abuse committed at Abu Ghraib prison.
RAND senior political scientist Arturo Munoz argues that the United States should have backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai's outreach to the Taliban in December 2001. "A peace process among the Afghans was being discussed at the time, only to be repudiated by the Americans," Munoz wrote. He suggests withdrawing many of the troops, and working within Afghan culture instead of imposing a U.S.-style democracy.
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 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.
He's already got the vote of several of the top officials he's worked with previously. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she'd received the largest collection of letters in support of Olsen than for any previous nominee to appear before her committee.
Olsen is a Harvard-trained lawyer, like Leiter. He's well known in the intelligence community after nearly 20 years at Justice, spending much of his time there at the U.S. attorney's office. He prosecuted major terrorism and espionage cases there, eventually rising to deputy assistant attorney general for national security, in charge of overseeing intelligence as part of the post-9/11 reforms to intelligence sharing.
He played a key role in implementing stricter oversight measures after the Bush administration's electronic-surveillance program was exposed. A Republican staffer who worked with him says Olsen instituted a program to check FBI field office's work, to make sure tools like eavesdropping measures approved by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court were being used in accordance with the law. The court approves government requests to monitor American citizens electronically.
Olsen has worked for Republican and Democratic administrations. In 2009, the Obama White House appointed him head of an interagency task force set up to review cases of 240 Guantanamo detainees. Olsen recounted how he secured unanimous agreement from all government agencies that took part on who could be released and which were too dangerous to let go.
But he also answered some tough questions from senators over whether Guantanamo detainees' backgrounds had been whitewashed to make them look less dangerous. "There was never at any time any effort to change threat information," Olsen said. He said his job was to "follow every fact and be as precise and specific and rigorous in analyzing that information."
"There were instances we looked at those facts and came to different conclusions," he said, but there was never any attempt to change them.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., alleged in a letter, read at the hearing, that Olsen lied to him when briefing him on Guantanamo detainees, by failing to reveal to him that the administration had already made a decision to transfer two minority Chinese Uighurs (pronounced WEE'-gurs) to the United States. Olsen said he was not allowed to disclose the decision. "I did not mislead, but I was not in a position at the time to lay out" that the decision had been made, he said.