The nation's top intelligence official yesterday went further than ever before in outlining what he described as a heightened threat of an al Qaeda attack on American soil.
"Their attempt is to cause mass casualties," said Adm. Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence, on NBC's "Meet the Press" program. "Second [priority] is political and possibly economic disruption."
Just days ago, a new National Intelligence Estimate found al Qaeda has strengthened its ability to attack the United States. McConnell said al Qaeda is seeking the means to launch chemical, biological and possibly nuclear attacks. But the likeliest threat is harder to detect.
"What we see currently is primarily a focus on explosives -- explosives that can generate a large explosion, but they're put together with commercially available material," he said.
McConnell says small numbers of al Qaeda operatives are in this country raising funds. But he said he knows of no al Qaeda cells in the country that are capable of launching a strike at this time.
"I worry that there are sleeper cells in the U.S.," McConnell said. "I do not know."
Michael Scheuer, who once ran the CIA's al Qaeda desk, says the Bush administration is not merely fear mongering.
"The intelligence community is being very frank about what it knows so it doesn't get Shanghaied or blamed for something that wasn't its fault, as it did after 9/11," Scheuer said.
The main reason for al Qaeda's resurgence, U.S. intelligence officials say, is a safe haven in Pakistan's lawless Waziristan province, where Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are believed to operate outside the control of Pakistan's government.
"I believe he is in the tribal region of Pakistan," McConnell said of bin Laden.
Pakistan's government had made an agreement with local tribal officials that the tribal leaders would be responsible for policing the area and ensuring that extremists had no safe haven. U.S. intelligence officials say that policy has been an abject failure.
Frances Townsend, the president's homeland security advisor, told Diane Sawyer earlier this week that the United States has not ruled out military strikes inside Pakistan.
"There are no options off the table," Townsend told ABC News. "Job number one is protecting the American people."
Asked why the United States is not using special operations troops and drone surveillance planes in Pakistan, Townsend indicated that some U.S. operations could already be underway.
"Just because we don't speak about things publicly doesn't mean we're not doing many of the things you're talking about," she said on "Fox News Sunday."
U.S. troops have never openly conducted operations inside Pakistani territory for fear of undermining President Pervez Musharraf. The rhetoric today suggests that policy could change. But with the military stretched thin by two wars, some in the intelligence community remain skeptical.
"The politicians in this country in both parties are trying to shift the blame on Musharraf for a job that they screwed up for the last decade," Scheuer said. "That's what this is about."