WASHINGTON — As much as any government body, the Central Intelligence Agency sits at the center of the 9/11 commission report - and its calls for reform.
Senior members of the CIA say they accept the criticism. They also ask that the strides they've made in the nation's war on terrorism since the attacks of 9/11 be taken into account before any major changes are made.
"The fight we're in now, the war we're in now looks significantly different than it did three years ago," says one senior CIA official. "This agency is fundamentally different. Our partners, and this is hugely critical, are fighting this war differently than they did with us three years ago. The target ... is profoundly different than it was three years ago primarily as a result of global disruption operations," the official says.
The senior official, and two others, emotionally defended the agency's performance - and their cooperation with sister agencies.
"This target is personal for us," says the official. "We lost 3,000 fellow Americans. We've lost officers in this agency. Our sister services in this town lost officers. I waited to hear if my brother was alive. All right?" he asks, his voice cracking.
The officials also agreed changes need to be made but at the right pace and with respect for the war that is currently being waged. "We are now involved in a slugfest with an enemy that we faced before Sept. 11 and that we face even more significantly now," the senior official says.
He outlined the progress they've made: Some two-thirds of the Al Qaeda leadership has been apprehended, the planning and training facilities in Afghanistan are closed, and Pakistan is no longer aiding the group.
The capture of key operatives has provided invaluable intelligence information, enabling officials to thwart a number of attacks in the US and elsewhere. The March 2003 capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was cited as the most important catch. The official went on to say that he remembered "hearing" a senior Al Qaeda official say that "the loss of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was like the melting of an iceberg. We can never replace him."
The senior official ticked off other major losses Al Qaeda has suffered:
• Yemen was an operational hub for Al Qaeda, and today the top six to 10 leaders there are "all off the table."
• Saudi Arabia was also a key hub. A year ago, more than a half dozen Al Qaeda leaders operated in Saudi Arabia. Today, "every single one of them is off the streets," he says. "Every one."
He says that although serious damage has been inflicted on Al Qaeda, it still continues to find ways to attack in the way it did three years ago.
He describes the two parallel tracks they are following: Remnants of the Al Qaeda leadership continue to plot attacks against the US; and amorphous groups spread over much of the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia are inspired by Al Qaeda to carry out additional attacks.
In terms of the threats leading up to the November presidential election, he says he wouldn't "characterize what we have now as chatter. I think we have some fairly specific information that Al Qaeda wants to come after us."