Concerns grow over Al Qaeda's group in Yemen

Al Qaeda's offshoot in Yemen has emerged as the "foremost concern" for U.S. spy agencies since the group was tied to two attacks in the United States last year, according to a sweeping assessment of the global terrorism threat issued Tuesday by the nation's top intelligence officer.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair told a Senate panel that American spy agencies have intensified surveillance of the Al Qaeda affiliate's operations amid concern that the group -- once considered a regional menace -- is focused on the "recruitment of Westerners or other individuals with access to the U.S. homeland."

Officials also testified that an elite interrogation team, created to replace a controversial CIA program dismantled by President Obama last year, is now operational and has been used to question some terrorism suspects overseas.

Blair's testimony came during an annual appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee that is designed to serve as a survey of threats. Among those highlighted Tuesday were the increasing pace and sophistication of efforts to penetrate U.S. computer systems, as well as the spread of nuclear technology and illicit weapons.

But the hearing was focused on vulnerabilities in the nation's intelligence apparatus that were exposed by a series of plots last year.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the committee, said that amid a growing list of national security concerns, "the top threat on everyone's mind is the heightened terrorism threat, especially against the U.S. homeland."

Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based offshoot is known, has been implicated in two of the most serious plots to surface in recent years.

Blair said the group "directed" a plot aimed at taking down an airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day, providing training and explosives to the Nigerian suspect who was subdued by other passengers after allegedly attempting to detonate a bomb he had smuggled aboard.

AQAP, as the group is often called, was also linked to the November shooting rampage at Ft. Hood, Texas, in which an Army major killed 13 people.

Lawmakers voiced frustration with the handling of both cases, particularly the failure to recognize a series of clues that preceded the airliner attack and the handling of the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, especially his being read his Miranda rights by FBI agents.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who appeared alongside Blair at the hearing, defended the agency's handling of the case. An elite interagency interrogation group created by the Obama administration specifically to question terrorism suspects was not used with Abdulmutallab. Officials subsequently said the team, known as the High-Value Interrogation Group, was not available and remained months away from being deployed.

But officials provided a different account Tuesday, indicating that new interrogation teams have already been used to question some suspects overseas. The officials did not elaborate on who those suspects were, but they indicated that they might include prisoners in the custody of other countries.

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, who also appeared with Blair, indicated that his agency's interrogators remain active. Its interrogators primarily serve as backups to their counterparts at the FBI, Panetta said, but "are doing some of the interviewing."

Overall, officials said, Al Qaeda remains resilient despite being weakened by a campaign of drone missile strikes in Pakistan.

"Al Qaeda is adapting their methods in ways that often make it difficult to detect," Panetta said.

Strikes against the group's compounds in Pakistan have "done a very effective job at disrupting their operations," Panetta said. "What's happening instead is that they are moving to other safe havens and to other regional nodes in places like Yemen and Somalia."

The hearing also highlighted growing concern in the U.S. intelligence community that the nation's computer networks are vulnerable to attack, worries that were heightened recently when Internet search engine firm Google accused China of seeking to penetrate sensitive e-mail accounts.

"Malicious cyber activity is occurring on an unprecedented scale with extraordinary sophistication," Blair said. He signaled the seriousness of the issue by focusing on the "cyber threat" during the first part of his testimony, saying that the nation's communications infrastructure is "severely threatened."

greg.miller@latimes.com

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