Key Democratic and Republican members of Congress said Sunday that the terrorism threat reportedly triggered by an intercepted message between senior al Qaeda operatives is the most serious threat in years, with some warning that the threat is an indication the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks still poses a significant danger to the U.S.
The threat forced the closings of more than 20 U.S. embassies and consulates this weekend. A travel alert was issued for Americans planning to travel overseas, particularly in the Middle East, and will remain in effect for the rest of August. The closures of the embassies and consulates and the travel alert were triggered by an intercepted message between senior al Qaeda operatives, CNN reported Sunday.
The State Department announced Sunday afternoon that 19 diplomatic posts will remain shuttered through Saturday, underscoring the level of concern by U.S. security officials about the potential danger. Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the extension was ordered in part because of the looming celebrations marking the end of the Ramadan period of fasting for Muslims and in part out of "an abundance of caution."
"This is not an indication of a new threat stream, merely an indication of our commitment to exercise caution and take appropriate steps to protect our employees, including local employees, and visitors to our facilities," Ms. Psaki said.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican and ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the danger was "the most serious threat that I've seen in the last several years."
Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, concurred, saying the magnitude of the plot may be even more extensive than that.
"I have been given every assurance that we're doing everything we can to prevent this threat from happening," Mr. McCaul, said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "And I must say this is probably one of the most specific and credible threats I've seen perhaps since 9/11. And that's why everybody is taking this so seriously."
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said that more than 25 of the country's embassies around the world are particularly vulnerable, according to a briefing senators recently received from Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
"We need to know and realize we're living in an increasingly dangerous world, and this specific threat that we've been briefed on over and over again has reached a new level," Mr. Durbin said.
The U.S. posts that will remain closed for the week include embassies and consulates in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Libya and Somalia.
Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that shutting down the embassies and consulates was the right move in light of the intelligence.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, cautioned against allowing the United States to be driven out of the Middle East completely, as resurgent elements of the global al Qaeda network reconstitute themselves in the volatile region.
"Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in Iraq, al-Nusra, all of them have one thing in common: They want to drive the West out of the Mideast and take over these Muslim countries and create an al Qaeda-type religious entity in the place of what exists today," Mr. Graham said on CNN's "State of the Union." "So this is an effort to terrorize us, to drive us out of the Mideast."
Mr. Graham said the U.S. has to show "resolve, but we have to be smart."
He said he still plans to travel to Egypt with Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, in the near future.
"We can't let them get away with this. We have to stand up to them," he said.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, agreed that the government was taking appropriate action.
"We need to take every precaution necessary, and that's what we're doing right now," Mr. Ruppersberger said on ABC's "This Week."
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and past chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said he often disagrees with the Obama administration on matters of national security but supports the steps officials have taken in recent days.
"They'd be derelict if they were not," Mr. King said on "This Week." "[A]s far as this worldwide alert, I think it's absolutely warranted in this situation."
Mr. McCaul said the State Department warning is significant because al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is probably the biggest threat to the U.S.
"They're the al Qaeda faction that still talks about hitting the West and hitting the homeland," he said. "And their expertise is chemical explosives, hitting the aviation sector, as we saw with the underwear bomber. So we are on a high state of alert."
Former NSA and CIA Director Gen. Michael V. Hayden said on "Fox News Sunday" that the terrorist threat is an indication that the danger posed by al Qaeda is not over.
"You have a real danger to Americans, you want to be cautious," Mr. Hayden said. "The announcement itself might also be designed to interrupt al Qaeda planning, to put them ... on the back foot, to let them know that we're alert, and that we're onto at least a portion of this plot line."
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