U.S. intelligence chiefs face grilling on costs


  • World
  • Thursday, 10 Feb 2011

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. intelligence chiefs head to Congress on Thursday to answer questions about the soaring costs of spycraft and shifting threats to the United States nearly a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

President Barack Obama's Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in November's congressional elections, largely due to voter anger over a slow economic recovery and a swelling government deficit.

The new Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee -- mirroring his party's very public focus on cutting spending -- is promising to take a close look at costs at the CIA, the National Counterterrorism Center and other agencies.

"We know that we can't sustain growth rates in the intelligence community the way we have in the past decade," Representative Mike Rogers told Reuters.

Last year, the U.S. government disclosed it spent just over $80 billion on intelligence in fiscal year 2010, double the amount in 2001. Obama took office in January 2009 after the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush, a Republican.

"Ten years after 9/11 we've had huge increases in intelligence spending and we're going to review ... where we were, where we are and where we need to go," Rogers said.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and seven other senior officials will testify at the annual hearing that is expected to touch on sensitive issues ranging from North Korea's nuclear programs to China's cyber capabilities in open and closed-door sessions.

A Senate committee will hold a similar hearing next week.

Much of the focus will remain on the evolving war against Islamist militants, Rogers said.

Al Qaeda's affiliates in troubled states like Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere are emerging as direct dangers for the United States, while the group's core leadership in Pakistan's border regions with Afghanistan are under unprecedented pressure from U.S. strikes by unmanned drone aircraft.

YEMEN VS PAKISTAN

In a preview of what may be heard on Thursday, Michael Leiter, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday he saw al Qaeda's Yemen-based branch as a major threat to the United States.

The group, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, has claimed responsibility for a failed Christmas Day attack in 2009 aboard a U.S. airliner and a more recent attempt to blow up two U.S.-bound cargo planes with toner cartridges packed with explosives.

Still, U.S. officials are split over whether al Qaeda in Yemen or Pakistan is the biggest danger.

"Which one is more dangerous or immediate, you get a debate about," a senior U.S. defense official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"AQAP makes more news through failed plots. The other failed plots don't necessarily do that. But that doesn't mean they don't exist."

The official did not say which threats went unreported.

On Egypt, Rogers defended U.S. intelligence ahead of the protests that threaten to topple President Hosni Mubarak. Critics have said Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were slow to grasp the scale of the upheaval.

"I think what you'll find is that this was not an intelligence failure," Rogers said, adding there had been plenty of warning of "chafing under Mubarak."

"Once it did occur, was there information sufficient to make real-time policy decisions? Well, as somebody who was getting briefed on a regular basis as this was unfolding, I can say absolutely yes."

The White House has shared that assessment. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said last week that Obama received "relevant, timely and accurate" intelligence on the crisis.

(Editing by John O'Callaghan and Cynthia Osterman)

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