The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — America’s top law enforcement officials urged the public Wednesday to help the FBI track down seven suspected al-Qaida operatives and avert an attack on U.S. soil that a stream of credible intelligence indicates could occur in the summer.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said the “disturbing” intelligence, collected for months, augments al-Qaida’s own declaration that its plans for a devastating follow-up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are 90 percent complete. Ashcroft said that could mean terrorists already are in the United States to execute the plan, though he acknowledged there is no new information indicating when, where or how an attack might happen.
“Credible intelligence from multiple sources indicates that al-Qaida plans to attempt an attack on the United States in the next few months,” Ashcroft said at a news conference with FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Ashcroft and Mueller announced an intensified level of counterterrorism activity for the summer. This includes interviews with individuals who could provide intelligence about terrorism, creation of a new FBI task force to focus on the threat and an appeal to all Americans to be extra vigilant about their surroundings, their neighbors and any suspicious activity.
There was no immediate plan to raise the nation’s terror threat level. Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security Department undersecretary for border and transportation security, said, “We don’t have the specific information that would justify raising it or would cause us to do it.”
Some Democrats charged that the administration was needlessly scaring people, perhaps to divert attention from the continuing problems in Iraq.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry stopped short of charging the announcement was politically motivated. But he questioned the Bush administration’s commitment to providing the resources necessary to protect the country, citing gaps in chemical and nuclear plant safety and inadequate protection for U.S. ports.
Ashcroft rejected talk of a political motive, saying greater public vigilance could help head off an attack.
“My job isn’t to worry about whether someone will be second-guessing,” he said.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan also denied there was a political aspect to the threat report.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, notable by his absence from the Ashcroft and Mueller news conference, indicated on NBC’s “Today” show that there was some dissent over whether to raise the threat level from yellow, midpoint on the five-color scale, to orange.
“There’s not a consensus within the administration that we need to raise the threat level,” he said. However, later in the day, he echoed Ashcroft in saying all key officials are in agreement about the terror threat.
Six of the al-Qaida operatives, including two Canadian citizens, whose photos and backgrounds were highlighted Wednesday have been the subject of FBI pursuit for months. The seventh, 25-year-old Adam Yahiye Gadahn, is a U.S. citizen who grew up on a California goat farm and converted to Islam as a teenager. He was described by Mueller as having attended al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan and served as an al-Qaida translator.
Each of the suspects, Ashcroft said, presents “a clear and present danger” to the United States because of their language skills, familiarity with U.S. culture and ability to travel under multiple aliases and use forged documents.
Ashcroft said that al-Qaida has made adjustments to its tactics to escape easy detection, such as having operatives travel with their families to lower their profiles and recruiting people who can pass for having European ethnicity rather than Middle Eastern backgrounds, as all of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers did.
“Al-Qaida is a resilient and adaptable organization, known for altering tactics in the face of new security measures,” Ashcroft said.