The top U.S. intelligence official says al-Qaida remains the chief security threat facing the United States. In testimony on Capitol Hill, the Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell also expressed concern that al-Qaida in Iraq could mount attacks outside the country.  VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

In his annual report to Congress, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told the Senate Intelligence Committee that al-Qaida remains "the preeminent" terror threat facing the United States both at home and abroad.

"Despite our successes over the years, the group has retained or regenerated key elements of its capability, including its top leadership, operational lieutenants, and a defacto safe haven in the Pakistani border area with Afghanistan," McConnell said.

McConnell said al-Qaida's affiliates - particularly al-Qaida in Iraq - pose a significant regional threat.

"We are increasingly concerned that even as coalition forces inflict significant damage on al-Qaida inside Iraq, they may deploy resources to mount attacks outside that country," he said.

McConnell also expressed concerns about weapons of mass destruction.

He noted that a national intelligence estimate released last year concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in response to international pressure, but continues to enrich uranium.

"Therefore, we remain concerned that Iran is a potential nuclear weapons threat.   The earliest possible date that Iran could technically be capable of producing enough fissile material for a weapon is late 2009, but we judge that to be unlikely," McConnell said.

The National Intelligence Director questioned North Korea's commitment to the six-party agreement on nuclear disarmament, noting that Pyongyang missed a December 31 deadline to declare all its nuclear programs.

"While Pyongyang denies a program of uranium enrichment, and they deny their proliferation activities, we believe North Korea continues to engage in both," he said.  "We remain uncertain about Kim Jung Il's commitment to full denuclearization as he promised in the six-party agreement."

McConnell also cited the potential for cyber-attacks on U.S. information systems as worrisome.   

He expressed concern about increases in military spending and military modernization by Russia and China.

"If present trends continue, the global development of counter-space capabilities continues, Russia and China will have an increasing ability to target U.S. military and intelligence satellites and command and control systems in the future," McConnell said.

On the issue of Cuba, McConnell predicted little political instability if the ailing President Fidel Castro should die - at least in the short term.

"We assess the political situation in Cuba probably will remain stable during at least the initial months following Fidel Castro's death," he said.  "Policy missteps or the mishandling of the crisis by the leadership could lead to political instability, raising the risk of mass migration."

Besides Admiral McConnell, several other top intelligence officials appeared before the committee, including the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Hayden.

Hayden confirmed that the CIA used the extreme interrogation technique known as waterboarding on three detainees following the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

"We used it against these three high-valued detainees because of the circumstances of the time," he said. "Very critical to those circumstances was the belief that additional catastrophic attacks against the homeland were imminent."

Hayden said waterboarding has not been used for almost five years, but remains a tool for CIA interrogators.  He said its future use would require the consent of the president and legal approval from the attorney general. 

Critics say waterboarding, which induces the feeling of imminent drowning, amounts to torture.