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.
Ashcroft acknowledged there is no new intelligence about the suspects indicating they are in the United States or part of a specific al-Qaida plot. He said it was important that the public be given “a reminder” about them.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that for “several months” the panel has been hearing reports about a new al-Qaida danger. While he agreed that the threat was serious, he questioned why the threat level wasn’t being changed if new warnings were being made public.
“We’ll never know if the administration has new and justifiable information for this new warning,” Durbin said in an interview. “I think there’s a building skepticism about warnings from the Bush administration.”
Ashcroft sand Mueller insisted there was reason for concern, and said the summer could offer a number of inviting targets for al-Qaida.
The political repercussions from the March 11 train bombings in Spain, which contributed to defeat of the ruling party in subsequent elections, could embolden al-Qaida to try to influence U.S. elections through attacks here, Ashcroft said.
There is also concern about a number of high-profile summer events, beginning Saturday with dedication of the new World War II Memorial in Washington and next month’s economic summit of the eight industrial powers, being held at Sea Island, Georgia. The Democratic and Republican conventions, in Boston and New York, also are potential targets.
One aspect of the law enforcement plan is to conduct interviews nationwide of people who could provide information about terrorist plans or suspects. Mueller said these would not necessarily be targeted at Arab-Americans or Muslims — although the interviews could include many from those ethnic groups — and would be driven by intelligence needs and information collected elsewhere.
Information being sought, he said, could include “persons that may have moved into a community recently, persons who seem to be in a community without any roots, persons that could be either facilitators or those who are willing to undertake an attack.”