The CIA has hampered al-Qaeda’s free rein in the tribal region of western Pakistan and Iran appears to be nearing a decision on whether to build a nuclear warhead, departing CIA chief Michael Hayden said on Thursday.
“The great danger was that the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan was a safe haven. My belief is that it is neither safe nor a haven,” Hayden said at the agency’s headquarters in what probably was his final briefing for reporters.
US president-elect Barack Obama has picked Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to former president Bill Clinton, to head the agency.
Hayden said the progress in the tribal region was a “big deal.” It is the result, he said, of the Bush administration’s push to dislodge al-Qaeda from the enclave the terrorist network established on the Pakistan border after it fled Afghanistan in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Hayden said he leaves office after a decade at senior posts in intelligence agencies with few regrets. As for Osama bin Laden, he said: “We have not killed or captured him. That is a disappointment, rather than a regret.”
The CIA director noted with satisfaction that the latest bin Laden videotape, issued on Wednesday, includes only audio of the al-Qaeda leader and is an appeal for donations. The tape may be intended to offer proof he is still alive to his supporters, Hayden said.
He predicted that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No. 2 in al-Qaeda, would be captured or killed before bin Laden because the deputy is more exposed.
“I do know what we and our Pakistani allies have been able to do has changed the equation,” Hayden said.
Shifting to Iran, Hayden said that country is steadily producing low-enriched uranium and would soon have enough to create highly enriched uranium — the fuel for a nuclear warhead. The CIA does not have clear intelligence saying that a decision has been made, but the agency is aware of the amount of uranium Iran has produced so far.
Agency officials presume that Iran is seriously considering using its uranium stocks to make nuclear weapons because of its willingness to endure the economic pain of penalties for refusing to agree to international safeguards.
“I’m amazed Iran is willing to run the costs they are running if they are not trying to keep the option open for a nuclear weapon,” Hayden said.
The possibility of an Iranian warhead is on a list of 10 potential problems that Hayden says his successor should keep watch on over the next 12 months. That list is far more detailed than the note that Hayden’s predecessor, Porter Goss, left.
“Good luck,” it said.
Panetta’s major challenge may be improving the agency’s relationship with Congress after eight years of the Bush administration’s dismissal of the intelligence oversight committees.
“We’re digging out of a hole a little bit,” Hayden said.
The list also notes that violence in Mexico is reaching a level that may force the Mexican government to look to the US for help. Hayden also said Panetta should keep a close eye on Europe, where traditional allies do not always share the US view on the threat posed by terrorism and American methods to combat it.
Hayden said the fluctuating price of oil may pose some opportunities in the next year. If the cost hovers around US$40 a barrel, it could have a destabilizing effect on Iran’s government by worsening the impact of the economic penalties and inflaming domestic political discontent.