WASHINGTON - In a first for the spy world, a serving head of the CIA's clandestine unit which recruits foreign agents and conducts covert operations came out from the shadows to testify in public on Wednesday.
"By virtue of my position in the CIA, I am not a public person. Indeed, in the history of the CIA, no one in my position has ever testified publicly before," James Pavitt, CIA deputy director for operations, told the national commission investigating the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Pavitt has on occasion given a public speech, and has been spotted slipping into closed-door congressional hearings, but the unprecedented step of giving public testimony even made some of the commissioners nervous.
"My stomach's been churning as Mr Pavitt's been answering questions here this afternoon. This should not be a precedent for the DDO to be called before any public hearing," said Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator who had been a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
He suggested the commission get documentation "on the record that this is an extraordinary situation and it's not to become a precedent for the future."
Clandestine operations have been behind some of the most "dramatic takedowns" of the al Qaeda network, Pavitt said.
But even the demise of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, who are in hiding, would "be a sign post, not, not a turning point," he said.
"All of us ... must realise that this is a war with no clear end in sight," he said.
He described some of the changes since the September 11 hijacked plane attacks, which killed nearly 3000 people.
"Two and a half years ago, we would have listed our top concerns -- Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Southeast Asia," Pavitt said. "And we remain concerned about extremists operating in those areas. But today, for example, almost every senior target is gone in Yemen; killed or captured."
Pavitt ended his statement by offering condolences to the families of the victims of the September 11 attacks, on behalf of his covert operatives who cannot appear in the public eye.
"We sounded an alarm. We knew the threat was lethal, unambiguous, and we knew it was coming at us," Pavitt said. "We put our hearts and our souls into disrupting and preventing those attacks. We did all we knew how to do and we failed."
Pavitt said they would do everything to make sure to "never let that failure happen again."
Staff statements and testimony from today's session of the 10th hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9-11 Commission):
Testimony of Robert Mueller III,
Director, FBI [PDF]
Herald Feature: September 11
Related information and links