New York Times: Some senior Iranian leaders are now more willing to carry out attacks inside the United States in response to perceived American threats against their country, the Obama administration’s top intelligence official said on Tuesday, pointing to last fall’s suspected assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Some senior Iranian leaders are now more willing to carry out attacks inside the United States in response to perceived American threats against their country, the Obama administration’s top intelligence official said on Tuesday, pointing to last fall’s suspected assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
The comments by the official, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, in prepared testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, came as tensions between the United States and its allies with Iran over its nuclear program have escalated, with the United States trying to build support for increased sanctions against Iran.
Other intelligence officials indicated that while there was no evidence of other Iranian plots in the United States, Mr. Clapper’s remarks were intended to put both the Iranians and the American intelligence community on notice that high priority would be given to ferreting out information about possible plans to stage attacks in this country.
Mr. Clapper said that the suspected assassination plot “shows that some Iranian officials — probably including supreme leader Ali Khamenei — have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.”
He said the United States was also concerned about plotting by Iran against American or allied interests overseas, adding that “Iran’s willingness to sponsor future attacks in the United States or against our interests abroad probably will be shaped by Tehran’s evaluation of the costs it bears for the plot against the ambassador as well as Iranian leaders’ perceptions of U.S. threats against the regime.”
The written statement did not provide any details on what types of attacks Mr. Clapper thought were possible, and senators did not ask him about it during the panel’s annual session to review global threats to the United States.
The session was the first such hearing since the death of Osama bin Laden last May, and Mr. Clapper used the opportunity to say that sustained pressure from the United States and its allies will probably reduce Al Qaeda’s remaining leadership in Pakistan to “largely symbolic importance” over the next two to three years as the terrorist organization fragments into more regionally focused groups and homegrown extremists.
Flanked by senior intelligence officials from throughout the government, Mr. Clapper also noted the rising volatility in the Middle East and North Africa after the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, increasing threats of cyberattacks against government and private business computer systems, continued tensions with North Korea over its nuclear program and rising drug-fueled violence in Mexico and Central America that threatens to spill over the border.
As American diplomats step up their efforts to broker a peace deal with the Taliban and other militants to end the war in Afghanistan, Mr. Clapper also defended the administration’s discussions of preliminary trust-building measures, including a possible transfer of five Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican who is the committee’s vice chairman, signaled Congressional opposition to the plan, which administration officials have said would not release the prisoners outright but transfer them to authorities in Qatar, where the Taliban are setting up an office to hold political talks. “We should not transfer these detainees from Guantánamo,” Mr. Chambliss said, citing American intelligence assessments warning of the risks the prisoners posed.
Mr. Clapper acknowledged that the Taliban remained “a resilient, determined adversary” and underscored that any deal involving prisoners would hinge on “where these detainees might go and the conditions in which they would be controlled or surveilled.”
As Taliban leaders debate whether to fight or cut a deal, the death of Bin Laden has severely weakened a Qaeda leadership that was already reeling from the death or capture of several other top leaders. The losses have forced the organization to rely more heavily on affiliates in such places as North Africa, Iraq and Yemen, as well as individual “lone wolf” extremists in the United States.
Intelligence officials say that continued pressure by the United States and its allies — including drone strikes, efforts to dry up terrorists’ financing and campaigns to counter extremist recruiting propaganda — are likely to fragment this already decentralized movement.
“As long as we sustain the pressure on it, we judge that core Al Qaeda will be of largely symbolic importance to the global jihadist movement,” Mr. Clapper said in his opening statement.
Of all the affiliates that have sprouted up over the past decade, intelligence analysts say that the Qaeda arm in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, poses the greatest immediate threat to the United States. Mr. Clapper said that the death last September of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who was a top propagandist and operational planner for the Yemen affiliate, “probably reduces, at least temporarily, A.Q.A.P.’s ability to plan transnational attacks.”
Over all, Al Qaeda has struggled to keep pace with events unfolding as result of the Arab Spring, Mr. Clapper said, warning, however, that “prolonged instability or unmet promises of reform would give Al Qaeda, its affiliates and its allies more time to establish networks, gain support and potentially engage in operations, probably with less scrutiny from local security services.”