Terror Update: Where Does the U.S. Stand?

One day before the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the senior government figures charged with assessing terrorist threats to the United States told Congress that the United States is safer than it was before the attacks, but not yet safe from terrorist violence – and won't be for a considerable amount of time.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee heard testimony from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, John Scott Redd, director of the National Counterterrorism Center and FBI director Robert Mueller.

Redd, though he noted the government's many accomplishments, provided a rather chilling conclusion.

"We are safer today than we were on Sept. 11, 2001. But we are not safe and nor are we likely to be for a generation or more," Redd said. "We are in a long war, we face an enemy that is adaptable, dangerous and persistent, and who always has a vote."

"While we've won many battles since 9/11, there are many battles yet to be fought and we must anticipate there will be setbacks along the way," Redd continued.

Al Qaeda's Strength

Much of the testimony from McConnell, Chertoff and Mueller mirrored the July National Intelligence Estimate on the overall terrorism threat to the United States.

McConnell told the senators, "In our July national intelligence estimate, we assess that al Qaeda is planning to attack the homeland, is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction and significant economic shocks."

Asked if the group had been able to regain strength to Sept. 11 levels, McConnell said, "I would say [they have] significant capability, but not as strong as 2001."

Bin Laden Video

But with last week's surfacing of an apparently new video message from Osama bin Laden, the lawmakers expressed renewed concern.

Responding to the recently released tape, independent Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman said, "Bin Laden's tape is another shot across our bow. It is the sound of another alarm which calls us to alertness and duty and tells us that bin Laden and his ilk are out there, and so long as they are, the life of every American is endangered."

ABC News obtained a copy of the tape's transcript Friday, and reported on the message's bashing of the Bush administration, the Democratic-controlled Congress and the war in Iraq.

McConnell and Mueller also emphasized the importance of al Qaeda's central operation, reaching out to regional terror networks in Iraq and North Africa to help them expand their ideology and operatives that can be used in attacks. They also focused on the growing threat from "homegrown" terrorists and "lone wolf" types, who are not affiliated with a larger terror network.

Intel and Improvements

The nation's top security officials said that they had made significant improvements to the U.S. intelligence community since the Sept. 11 attacks, through better information sharing and analysis among agencies.

McConnell labeled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the United States to secretly intercept communications of terrorists and spies, as one of the most critical tools to countering terrorist threats.

McConnell said that FISA intercepts had been critical to recent terrorist plots being broken up overseas such as an averted bombing of U.S. military installations in Germany last week.

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