WASHINGTON - CIA Director George Tenet said Tuesday that the al-Qaida terror group is seriously damaged but has spread its radical anti-American agenda to other Islamic extremist groups that now pose the greatest threat to the United States.
"The steady growth of Osama bin Laden's anti-U.S. sentiment through the wider Sunni (Islamic) extremist movement, and the broad dissemination of al Qaida's destructive expertise, ensure that a serious threat will remain for the foreseeable future - with or without al Qaida in the picture," Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee in his annual assessment of global threats.
The leadership of the original al-Qaida terror group, which the United States targeted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is seriously damaged, Tenet said. Beyond al-Qaida however, Tenet said, there is a continuing threat to the United States from a "global movement infected by al-Qaida's radical agenda."
"And what we've learned continues to validate my deepest concern - that this enemy remains intent on obtaining and using catastrophic weapons," he said.
FBI Director Robert Mueller was expected to tell the committee that the Olympic Games in Greece and the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions are among the FBI's top security concerns this year.
The public session comes after months of scrutiny of the intelligence community's pre-war and so-far faulty estimates that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq.
"The question I am wrestling with is whether in fact we are as a country and as a people safer today than we were when the three of you were here a year ago," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., said in opening statements, speaking to Tenet, Mueller and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Security in Iraq remains elusive and "we're paying a very high price in blood and resources ... and in world opinion," Rockefeller said of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq without more international support
While members of the Bush administration caution that the search in Iraq is not over, the debate heated up in last month when Tenet's former special adviser, David Kay, left his position as the top U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq. He began saying publicly that he doesn't believe weapons of mass destruction will be found.
The hearing comes as officials continue to examine the performance of intelligence agencies on an array of fronts.
For example, the federal commission reviewing the Sept. 11 attacks is looking into whether the United States failed to aggressively track one of the 2001 hijackers after obtaining his first name and phone number from German authorities more than two years before the attacks.
"The commission has been actively investigating the issue for some time," Philip Zelikow, executive director of the Sept. 11 commission, said Monday.
The New York Times, in its Tuesday editions, quoted German intelligence officials who said they had given the CIA the first name and telephone number of Marwan al-Shehhi, and asked U.S. officials to track him. The Germans said they never heard back from U.S. officials until after Sept. 11.
Al-Shehhi was a member of the al-Qaida cell in Hamburg, Germany, and a roommate of suspected Sept. 11 ringleader Mohammed Atta. Al-Shehhi was the hijacker who took the controls of United Airlines Flight 175, which flew into the south tower of the World Trade Center, while Atta took over American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the north tower.
A U.S. official told The Associated Press late Monday that thousands of full names of suspected terrorists come across the intelligence community's screens on a regular basis, making them hard to always track.
"A first name - and a common one at that - is a scrap of information and doesn't take you anywhere without the benefit of hindsight," the U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The intelligence officials testifying Tuesday used last year's session - about a month before the invasion of Iraq - to help make the case that Saddam Hussein posed a serious threat. However, some predictions have yet to, or did not, pan out.