US : Al-Qaeda a present danger

Washington - Al-Qaeda is on the defensive but remains a "significant and present danger" to Americans, according to President Barack Obama's selection to lead the nation's top counter terrorism body.

"Al-Qaeda in many ways is weakened," thanks to a decade of US counter terrorism efforts, said Matthew Olsen, speaking on Tuesday to a Senate panel weighing his confirmation as director of the National Counter terrorism centre.

"We've made substantial progress," but the US must "redouble" its efforts to capitalize on Osama bin Laden's demise in a raid by Navy Seals in Pakistan on May 2, Olsen said.

He said the threat has spread and diversified beyond senior leaders in Pakistan, to diffuse groups in places like Yemen and Somalia.

Olsen currently is the general counsel for the clandestine eavesdropping service, the National Security Agency. If confirmed, he will take over as the United States marks the 10th anniversary of the September 11 2001, attacks.

The counter terrorism centre was formed in the aftermath of September 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 is difficult to figure out which pose the most clear and present dangers.

Abu Ghraib

On Tuesday, influential think tank RAND Corporation released a book highly critical of the US efforts to find and overcome terrorists. 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-Qaeda, and actions that helped militant groups recruit more followers, like the detainee abuse committed at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.

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 US-style democracy.

Several authors argue that the US invasion of Iraq was a mistaken overreach of American power that spent US resources that could have been better focused on al-Qaeda.

Eric Larson, a senior policy researcher, says the US is not taking advantage of al-Qaeda's overreach, in that the terror organization's use of brutal tactics is backfiring and hobbling its attempts to win over Muslims to its more militant view of Islam.

The authors also warn not to exaggerate al-Qaeda's strength. Essayist Brian Michael Jenkins argues the CIA has overblown the nuclear threat from al-Qaeda, 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 already has the vote of several of the top officials he has worked with previously.

Many letters

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairperson Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said she had received the largest collection of letters in support of Olsen than for any previous nominee to appear before her committee.

Olsen is a Harvard University-trained lawyer, like Leiter. He is known widely in the intelligence services after nearly 20 years at the Justice Department, where he spent much of his time at the US 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 main role in implementing stricter oversight measures after the Bush administration's electronic-surveillance programme was exposed.

A Republican staffer who worked with him says Olsen instituted a programme to check FBI field offices' work, to make sure tools like eavesdropping measures approved by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court were being used according to 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 inter-agency 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.

Backgrounds whitewashed

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.

Republican Representative Frank Wolf 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 already had made a decision to transfer two minority Chinese Uighurs 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.

Olsen also faced questioning about whether the NSA, where he holds the top legal role, has a right to track Americans' locations through their cellphones.

"There are certain circumstances where that authority may exist," he said, after Democratic Senator Ron Wyden asked him repeatedly whether the NSA is allowed to "use cell site data" to track Americans inside the US.

Olsen called the question "very complicated" and said he and other intelligence officials are working to answer the committee in a classified memo.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, also a Democrat, asked for the memo to be ready by September. She said the committee would vote quickly with a goal of getting Olsen in his new job next month.

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