WASHINGTON (CNN) — Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Thursday that al Qaeda may be moving forward with plans to carry out an large-scale attack on the United States.
Prior to Ridge’s statement, an administration official said an attack might precede the November elections.
No new specific intelligence exists, however, and Ridge did not raise the national color-coded threat level beyond the yellow, or elevated, level.
It was not immediately clear how the assessment of existing intelligence has led Ridge to his remarks.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, said the intelligence was “very non-specific” and there was “no reason for panic, no reason for paralysis.
“This is not a major announcement, it’s just a fact,” Frist told reporters. “The reality is of increased risk here in the homeland over the next several weeks, the next several months.”
Accusations of scaremongering
Officials say there is no specific intelligence of a planned attack on either of the major political conventions. The four-day Democratic convention kicks off July 26 in Boston, Massachusetts, and the Republican National Convention begins August 30 in New York City.
Officials say Ridge thinks it is time to again raise public awareness.
Because there is no plan to raise the threat level and only general information, some Democrats privately have questioned whether the timing of the announcement is politically motivated.
A senior administration official said accusations of scaremongering are to be expected. But the official, who has read Ridge’s prepared remarks, added, “This is one of those damned if you do and damned if you don’ts, and our default is ‘do.’ “
A senior campaign adviser to Sen. John Kerry, President Bush’s expected rival in November, said he is giving the White House the benefit of the doubt. He added, however, that the White House would have to explain its reasons for the new warnings.
The color-coded alert level has been raised five times to orange, or high, since the system’s inception after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. The last time the alert level was raised was in December, after a taped threat from al Qaeda’s No. 2 figure, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The alert level was dropped the following month.