Washington: The White House’s top counterterrorism official expressed renewed worries today about terrorists getting their hands on sophisticated surface-to-air weapons as news reports confirmed mass looting of surface-air-missiles by Libya’s new transitional government.

John Brennan, speaking at an intelligence conference organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA), twice mentioned concerns about weapons caches in Libya and made clear worries they could make their way into the hands of al Qaeda.

Brennan said administration officials “are working very closely” with the transitional government but said there are “lots concerns” because much of the country is not under the firm control of either side.

Then he made the administrations concerns about al Qaeda getting their mitts on weapons like crystal clear, saying that “a lot of the senior al Qaeda leaders are Libyans… so it’s important to work closely with” the new government.

A report from CNN in Libya came out as Brennan spoke, saying that Grinch SA-24 and SA-7s shoulder-launched missiles had been looted. The Grinch is a much more sophisticated and effective missile than the SA-7. The report quoted sources on the ground about the wide extent of looting.

Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch emergencies director, told CNN he has seen the same pattern in armories looted elsewhere in Libya, noting that “in every city we arrive, the first thing to disappear are the surface-to-air missiles.” He said such missiles can fetch many thousands of dollars on the black market.

“We are talking about some 20,000 surface-to-air missiles in all of Libya, and I’ve seen cars packed with them.” he said. “They could turn all of North Africa into a no-fly zone.”

Meanwhile, Brennan and two top congressional intelligence experts expressed confidence at the conference that the U.S. is fundamentally safer today than it was 10 years ago when al Qaeda made its most successful terrorist attack.

“I would argue we are safer, but it may not be for the reasons we think,” Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of House Permanent Select Committee for Intelligence, said at the conference. One of the keys to making the intel community more effective has been “putting analysts on the action side of intelligence in ways we’ve never done before.” While he didn’t mention this, one of the most effective tools I’ve heard about the NRO teams that work on the front lines with troops, augmented by analysts from NGA and other agencies. They can tell troops what national assets are available, how they can be used and then help them interpret the information once it’s obtained.

Rogers, a former FBI agent and Army intelligence officer, largely rejected concerns that racial profiling and data mining may have significantly eroded Americans civil liberties. A question about that sparked a very funny series of comments by Rogers.

“If you are looking for an Irish bank robbery crew you are likely to look in Charlestown,” he said, noting that if you are looking for an Irish connection you are probably going to go to places where Irish people congregate. For example, you might canvass Irish bars in Irish neighborhoods. Following such logic is not profiling, he argued. As an investigator you look for patterns of life.

“As we used to say in the FBI, that is a clue,” he said to much laughter.

As the intelligence community faces the likelihood of either budget cuts or, at least, a diminution in the rate of budget increases, Rogers said his committee and its Senate counterpart is best placed to help find duplicative spending across the intelligence communities budget stovepipes. “The rate of growth is unsustainable,” he said. “The DNI can’t do this, frankly. The authorization committees have to do this.”

He also said his committee had “found significant savings” in its most recent authorization bill, due to be voted on in the next few weeks. And Rogers said he had tried hard to stop the intelligence community from gaming the traditional splits between authorizers and appropriators by getting clearances for appropriations staff and making them part of the process in drawing up the HPSCI bill.

There was one chilling reminder of the stakes we all face, and of the burdens senior policymakers bear, during the conference. Two people came from stage right to bring fresh glasses of water to Brennan. He had his back to them and heard their footsteps. Brennan’s face tightened visibly. His moderator, Fran Townsend, told him they were bringing water. He relaxed. “I thought it was a note. Notes are never good in my business,” he said.