WASHINGTON -- The CIA has intelligence agents inside Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network -- as it did before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- but they are not within the terrorist leader's inner circle where key information about any future attack would be discussed, a senior intelligence official said yesterday.
"They are beyond foot soldiers but not in the inner circle," the official said. The agents -- Afghans, Pakistanis, Uzbeks, and others recruited and run by CIA case officers -- "are more senior than the agents [the US had] three years ago who were on the periphery," the official said.
Aided by these agents, electronic intercepts, satellite imagery, and extensive help from foreign intelligence services, the United States during the past two years has captured or killed two-thirds of bin Laden's top aides and broken up plots against US embassies, US and foreign aircraft and ships, and other targets worldwide.
Although the US intelligence community believes that Al Qaeda today is far less capable than the team that put together the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden "looks to the United States still as the brass ring," another senior intelligence official said. The Wednesday briefing was held on condition that reporters not disclose the names or the identity of three senior intelligence officials who spoke.
They made the revelations as part of a response to the stern criticism of the agency this week by the Sept. 11 commission.