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updated: 7/26/2011 12:22 PM

US counterterror official: Al-Qaida on the defense

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Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Al-Qaida is on the defensive but remains a "significant and present danger" to Americans, according to President Barack Obama's pick to lead the nation's top counterterrorism body.

"Al-Qaida in many ways is weakened," thanks to a decade of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, said Matthew Olsen, speaking Tuesday to a Senate panel weighing his confirmation as director of the National Counterterrorism Center. "We've made substantial progress," but the U.S. must "redouble" its efforts to capitalize on Osama bin Laden's demise in the Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan on May 2, Olsen said.

He said the threat has spread and diversified beyond the senior al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan, to diffuse groups in places like Yemen and Somalia.

Olsen is currently the general counsel for the clandestine eavesdropping service, the National Security Agency. If confirmed, he will take over as the U.S. marks the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The counterterrorism center was formed in the aftermath of Sept. 11 as a way to share and streamline intelligence-gathering among the CIA, FBI and other agencies to head off another terror attack.

The problem now is almost the opposite of the information deficit that allowed the 9/11 attacks, according to nominee Olsen's predecessor, Mike Leiter.

Leiter, a holdover from the Bush administration, said in an earlier AP interview that there is now so much data indicating so many threats that it's difficult to figure out which pose the most clear and present danger.

On Tuesday, influential think tank RAND Corporation released a book highly critical of the U.S. war on terror. "The Long Shadow of 9/11: America's Response to Terrorism," a compilation of essays, says missteps include overconfidence in rebuilding Afghanistan.

The book also says that launching a war in Iraq did little to weaken al-Qaida, and says the U.S. prosecuted the war on terror in ways that sometimes helped militant groups recruit more followers, such as the detainee abuse committed at Abu Ghraib prison.

RAND senior political scientist Arturo Munoz argues that the United States should have backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai's outreach to the Taliban in December 2001. "A peace process among the Afghans was being discussed at the time, only to be repudiated by the Americans," Munoz wrote. He suggests withdrawing many of the troops, and working within Afghan culture instead of imposing a U.S.-style democracy.

Several authors argue that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a mistaken overreach of American power that spent U.S. resources that could have been better focused on al-Qaida.

Eric Larson, a senior policy researcher, says the U.S. is not taking advantage of al-Qaida's overreach, in that its use of brutal tactics is backfiring, hobbling its attempt to win the Muslim world over to its more militant view of Islam.

The authors also warn not to exaggerate al-Qaida's strength. Essayist Brian Michael Jenkins argues the CIA has overblown the nuclear threat from al-Qaida, for instance.

Judging the merits of that analysis and how to respond to it will fall in part to Olsen, if confirmed as the head of the NCTC.

Olsen is a Harvard-trained lawyer, like Leiter. He spent nearly 20 years at the Justice Department, including as deputy assistant attorney general for national security, in charge of overseeing intelligence as part of the post-9/11 reforms to intelligence sharing.

He helped impose stricter oversight measures after the Bush administration's electronic-surveillance program was exposed.

In 2009, the Obama White House appointed him head of an interagency task force set up to review cases of 240 Guantanamo detainees. Olsen recounted how he secured unanimous agreement from all government agencies that took part on who could be released and which were too dangerous to let go.

But he also answered some tough questions from senators over whether Guantanamo detainees' backgrounds had been whitewashed to make them look less dangerous. "There was never at any time any effort to change threat information," Olsen said. He said his job was to "follow every fact and be as precise and specific and rigorous in analyzing that information."

"There were instances we looked at those facts and came to different conclusions," he said, but there was never any attempt to change them.

Olsen also faced questioning over whether the NSA, where he holds the top legal role, has the right to track Americans' locations through their cellphones.

"There are certain circumstances where that authority may exist," he said, after Sen. Ron Wyden, D., Ore., asked him repeatedly whether the NSA is allowed to "use cell site data" to track Americans inside the U.S.

Olsen called the question "very complicated" and said he and other intelligence officials are working to answer the committee in a classified memo.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked for the memo to be ready by September. She said the committee would vote quickly with a goal of getting Olsen in his new job next month.