The White House yesterday backed Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's warning that recent terrorist activity overseas translates into an increased risk of attack in the U.S. this summer.
"If you take a look at what's going on around the world, you could kind of understand some of the thinking," said Tony Snow, White House press secretary. "We had the experiences in London and Glasgow a couple of weeks ago, and summertime has always been a time of heightened activity, particularly by al Qaeda."
"When you've got al Qaeda a bit on its heels in a place like Iraq, you've got to keep in mind that they want to make a bloody splash someplace, and it's important really to be vigilant," Mr. Snow said.
Mr. Chertoff met with the Chicago Tribune editorial board Tuesday, and told its members that "the intent to attack us remains as strong as it was on September 10, 2001."
"We could easily be attacked," Mr. Chertoff said. "I believe we're entering a period this summer of increased risk."
Mr. Chertoff cited an increase in public statements from al Qaeda and a plot last summer to bomb a dozen jetliners over U.S. soil, as well as the recent failed bombings in London and the fiery car crash into the Glasgow Airport.
"All these things have given me kind of a gut feeling that we are in a period of increased vulnerability," Mr. Chertoff said.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and House Homeland Security Committee chairman, criticized Mr. Chertoff's choice of words and offered to convene a classified briefing to disclose possible threats to members of Congress.
"What color code in the Homeland Security Advisory System is associated with a 'gut feeling?' " Mr. Thompson said in a letter to Mr. Chertoff yesterday.
"Words have power, Mr. Secretary. You must choose them wisely — especially when they relate to the lives and security of the American public," Mr. Thompson said.
Homeland Security Department spokesman William Knocke suggested the letter was disingenuous and said that Mr. Thompson and other key Democratic members of Congress have already been briefed by Mr. Chertoff.
"It's disturbing that the chairman would forget that a couple of weeks ago he and other Democrat members had breakfast together where this was actually discussed, and the secretary raised these concerns then," Mr. Knocke said.
However, White House and Homeland Security officials say there are no specific or credible threats against government buildings or other infrastructure targets.
ABC News reported on its blog "The Blotter" that "dozens of FBI agents have been given a two-week deadline to run down more than 700 leads on an FBI 'worry list' developed in the wake of the failed attacks in London and Glasgow. The list includes some 100 specific leads in the New York area, senior law-enforcement officials also told ABCNews.com."
However, FBI spokesman Richard Kolko in Washington said the FBI has been focusing on potential terrorist threats in this country since the September 11 attacks and that dozens of counterterrorism units within the bureau have been tracking down suspects, leads and other would-be threats on an ongoing basis. He said that effort had nothing to do with the attacks in Britain.
"I can't dispute the numbers because I just don't have them, but FBI agents and analysts are working every day to assess the leads they have and address any potential threats that might be identified," he said. "This is not new and is ongoing."
ABC also reported that White House and other administration officials planned an emergency meeting in the "situation room" today to discuss a specific threat, but officials say the meeting is held regularly.
c Jerry Seper contributed to this report.