Washington: Al Qaeda and its offshoots remain the top threat to the United States and, in turn, the focus of the nation`s intelligence community, the director of national intelligence plans to tell Congress, according to US officials.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is also expected to address the revolts that have swept through two major American allies in the Arab world, toppling the leader of Tunisia and threatening the regime in Egypt, according to two intelligence officials familiar with testimony planned on Thursday on Capitol Hill.
Clapper will probably face tough questioning from lawmakers about whether he and other intelligence officials failed to provide specific details leading up to the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Other issues on Clapper`s agenda include the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and cyber terrorism, one official said.
The officials requested anonymity to discuss Clapper`s testimony ahead of its release.
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.
Intelligence officials say Clapper will 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 United States is at its highest level since the attacks of September 11, 2001. During the same hearing, National Counterterrorism Centre director Michael Leiter said al Qaeda`s offshoot in Yemen is "the most significant risk to the US homeland”.
Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Clapper will be Leiter, CIA director Leon Panetta, and the directors of the Defence Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.
The 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.
House 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, Dianne Feinstein, D-California, on Tuesday called the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts a "wakeup" 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.
O`Sullivan said President Barack Obama was warned of instability in Egypt "at the end of last year”. She was speaking at her confirmation hearing to become the deputy director of national intelligence, second in command to Clapper.
The senators pressed O`Sullivan to provide a timetable of what intelligence the President was provided and when. The responses will be provided within days, according to an intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
The hearing will also be a chance for the new House Intelligence Committee chairman, Republican Mike Rogers of Michigan, to lay out his own priorities. Rogers and the top Democrat, Republican Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, have said they`ll work to tighten oversight of the intelligence community under their watch.
On Wednesday, their offices announced their committee had voted unanimously to allow a handful of House appropriations committee members and staff to attend classified briefings and hearings to have them better informed about the programs they`re voting to fund.
Both lawmakers also hope to pass a bill this year to pay the intelligence budget. The last such bill, caught in a tug of war between Congress and Bush and Obama officials, took six years to become law.