WEAKENING AL QAEDA…. Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair (ret.) sent a letter to members of the intelligence community. It reflects a bit on the developments of 2009, looks at the challenges ahead, and most notably, highlights institutional progress in combating terrorism.

After noting the reviews that have already begun in the wake of the failed Christmas attack, Blair wrote:

Whatever shortcomings emerge in these investigations should not obscure the progress the Intelligence Community has made in developing collection and analysis capabilities, in improving collaboration, and in sharing information, both against al Qa’ida and against the many other threats to our national security.

The Intelligence Community should be proud of its role in weakening al Qa’ida’s ability to plan, organize, finance, and carry out highly orchestrated attacks conducted by well trained teams, like those on 9/11. Al Qa’ida is diminished as evidenced by the fact they are sending inexperienced individuals without long association with al Qa’ida, but susceptible to jihadist ideology. Unfortunately, even unsophisticated terrorists can kill many Americans.

I suspect there will be some, especially on the right, that find Blair’s assessment unsatisfying. Six days after a failed attempt to murder hundreds of Americans by blowing up an airplane, the director of national intelligence is boasting that al Qaeda is “diminished”? That the United States as “weakened” the terrorist network’s abilities?

Well, actually, yes. It may seem counter-intuitive to appreciate al Qaeda’s weakened state so soon after it nearly executed a deadly plot, but that doesn’t change the larger truth.

The Guardian had a report in September on al Qaeda “finding it difficult to attract recruits or carry out spectacular operations in western countries.” Counter-terrorism officials said the terrorist network “faced a crisis that was severely affecting its ability to find, inspire and train willing fighters.”

The New York Times had a related report soon after, which reached a similar conclusion: “[I]n important ways, Al Qaeda and its ideology of global jihad are in a pronounced decline.”

Emile Nakhleh, who headed the CIA’s strategic analysis program on political Islam until 2006, noted that al Qaeda is “finding it harder to recruit” and “harder to raise money.” Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor at the National War College in Washington, added, “I think Al Qaeda is in the process of imploding. This is not necessarily the end. But the trends are in a good direction.”

Kevin Drum had a good item the other day about the network’s relative strength.

The fact that al-Qaeda keeps focusing on airplanes is a sign of how weak they are. Sure, they could detonate a bomb in a security line, but it wouldn’t kill very many people and it certainly wouldn’t have the psychological impact of taking down a jumbo jet. Alternatively, they could try to blow up a chemical plant or something like that, but that’s out of their league. They’d have to get a team of operatives into the country and then they’d have to do all the planning and all the execution within the borders of the United States, where surveillance is far greater than it is in Yemen or Nigeria. They plainly don’t have the resources to do this, and every in-country plot we’ve uncovered since 2001 has been bumbling and amateurish.

Obviously this could change, but at the moment I think it’s wrong to say al-Qaeda “could always kill people” in a bunch of other ways. In fact, the evidence suggests that they can’t, at least not in any wholesale way.

It’s understandable for Americans to have the exact opposite reaction in light of last week’s plot. And as quickly became obvious, Republican lawmakers and leading conservative voices in the media have an interest in trying to make the public as fearful and mistrusting as possible, because the GOP may benefit electorally. Reading Blair’s letter about the United States “weakening al Qa’ida’s ability to plan, organize, finance, and carry out highly orchestrated attacks,” will likely prompt replies such as, “But, but, they just tried to kill 300 people!”

Looking objectively at what’s transpired, though, reinforces Blair’s assessment. Historically, al Qaeda attacks have featured “redundancy, simultaneity, and good planning.” Last week’s plot had none of those elements.

This is not to say the threat is gone — it’s obviously not. It’s also not to say terrorists are incapable of committing horrific acts of mass murder — they obviously are. The point is that the terrorist network that executed the attacks of 9/11 is weaker and is less capable.

That doesn’t make us safe. If U.S. forces were somehow able to eliminate 99% of the terrorist threat around the globe, the remaining 1% could still produce devastating acts of violence. The terrorist threat in Oklahoma in 1995 was all but non-existent, but Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were nevertheless able to blow up a federal building and kill 168 innocent people. As Blair’s letter to the intelligence community noted, “even unsophisticated terrorists can kill many Americans.”

But the larger trend is clearly heartening, and should come as something of a relief to Americans.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.