Amid criticism that intelligence services missed the signs of Arab revolt in Tunisia and Egypt, the nation’s top intelligence official was scheduled to tell Congress that the threat from al-Qaeda and its affiliates remains his No. 1 priority, US officials said.
In testimony scheduled for yesterday before the House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was to stress that counterterrorism to keep Americans safe is the focus of the intelligence community, according to one of those officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Clapper was expected defend how the intelligence community tracked the revolts that have swept through two major US allies in the Arab world, toppling the leader of Tunisia and threatening the regime in Egypt, the officials said.
Lawmakers have questioned whether the focus on al-Qaeda and its militant offshoots has weakened the intelligence community’s attention on other parts of the world.
The threat assessment hearing is often described as the most important of the year because the director of intelligence lays out the 16 major intelligence agencies’ priorities. It drives the agenda for the intelligence community and the congressional committees that must decide what issues to tackle and what programs to fund.
For the past two years, Clapper’s predecessor, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, faced the lawmakers alone, but Clapper has reverted to the previous practice of bringing other top agency chiefs with him.
Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Clapper will be CIA Director Leon Panetta, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, and the directors of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.
In Blair’s last such hearing, he trumpeted cyber-terrorism as the top challenge for the community to tackle.
Clapper would revisit cyber terror, as well as stressing the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, one official said. However, Clapper would focus on the militant threat, just a day after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the House Homeland Security Committee that the terrorist threat to the US is at its highest level since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. During the same hearing, Leiter said al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen was “the most significant risk to the US homeland.”
The threat assessment hearing is also the lawmakers’ annual opportunity to put their most pressing questions to the top officials in a public setting. This year, the House Intelligence Committee gets the first crack at them, with the Senate going second.
Intelligence Committee members are expected to ask whether the intelligence community fumbled its analysis of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. The lawmakers received a classified briefing on Tuesday on Egypt and other “Middle East hotspots,” said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.
The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, on Tuesday called the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts a “wake-up” for the intelligence community in an interview on MSNBC.
Last week, Feinstein and other senators questioned CIA official Stephanie O’Sullivan over whether the combined US agencies had provided specific warnings that violence was about to unfold.