- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2001

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill yesterday questioned the Bush administration's decision to issue publicly a second nationwide alert for possible new terrorist attacks, asking whether the message had become muddled and superfluous.
"I think it's crazy," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, following a private briefing with Tom Ridge, director of homeland security. "We're all on a high state of alert. How much higher can we get? Imaginations run wild."
Sen. Robert F. Bennett, Utah Republican, said most lawmakers realize the Bush administration is walking a fine line between issuing responsible warnings and causing panic. But, he warned: "If you cry wolf too many times, you've all read the story, you know what happens."
Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, argued that the White House had made "a tough call" in issuing a public alert, describing it as a "fine-line decision" echoing the sentiment of others who said the administration faced criticism for issuing the alert if nothing happens and for not making it public if something does.
"If no warning is issued and terrorists do strike, the White House and the Justice Department will be the first ones blamed for not issuing an alert," said one Capitol Hill staff member, who added that several members of Congress were upset at the lack of warnings for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Mr. Ridge, who attended separate party luncheons yesterday, defended the administration's actions, telling senators that a heightened state of alert issued Monday for 18,000 federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies warning that terrorists could be poised to strike again was based on "credible information from multiple sources."
Earlier, Mr. Ridge declined during a White House news conference to elaborate on specifics on the alert, ordered by Attorney General John Ashcroft, but confirmed that information gathered by intelligence officials had tied the possible attacks to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.
"I think the analysts would conclude that the sources were credible because of their connections with the terrorists that we're trying to fight," he said. "I think you can fairly assume that the experts view this information somehow related to al Qaeda or bin Laden, else we wouldn't have ramped it up."
Mr. Ashcroft, in ordering the alert, warned of possible terrorist strikes over the next few days, although he gave no information on intended targets or how the attacks would be carried out. It was the second alert this month based on what he described as "credible" information.
Federal law-enforcement authorities have said intelligence officials are concerned that bin Laden and members of al Qaeda have schemed to attack various sites inside the United States or U.S. interests abroad in retaliation for the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan.
Mr. Ridge said since the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington there has been an "extraordinary amount of coordination and collaboration" among federal law-enforcement and U.S. intelligence agencies, in addition to "unprecedented" cooperation from intelligence-gathering agencies worldwide.
As a result, he said, U.S. authorities are receiving more intelligence data than ever before. He said the new alert was based on "credible information" received from "multiple sources" that the United States "could very well be targeted" this week or next by terrorists.
"If we had specific information about the type of weapon or a specific location, this would have certainly been shared with local or state officials. Unfortunately, we view the information as credible, but not specific," Mr. Ridge said, adding that while some have questioned the propriety of the public alerts, they may have "thwarted or frustrated" new strikes by terrorists over the past month.
Mr. Ridge said the new alert was "occasioned by a decibel level that was louder" with additional sources, adding that intelligence experts in this country and abroad had assessed the credibility of the sources as "very high."
Asked if the government faced problems by issuing alerts when nothing happens, Mr. Ridge said federal authorities were not crying wolf.
"Certainly, the story a lot of people allude to is the one you tell your children from time to time, the little boy who cried wolf. I can appreciate the concern. But I do think right now, given the war we're confronting against terrorism on two fronts when we have credible multiple sources suggesting that America will be a target, it is still better to perhaps reiterate the previous alert," he said.
Mr. Ridge said the public had a right to know there was a threat and it had been deemed credible.
The White House yesterday also said the heightened state of alert was not prompted by reports that shopping malls will be targeted on Halloween, a rumor that has been widely spread on the Internet.
"I've heard no such reports that it may be connected with that," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, adding that the threat that prompted the new alert "did not contain specific information, for example, about what sites, what state. If any of that were provided, we'd be sharing it."
Asked whether a vague alert does more harm than good, Mr. Fleischer said: "You also have to keep in mind that any time the government is going to send an alert to 18,000 law-enforcement [agencies] across the nation, it's going to become public. And once it does, everybody in this room is going to say, 'Why didn't you tell us?'
"There is a logical determination made that if it's going to get shared with such a wide universe, the proper thing to do is fully and forthrightly inform the American people and the press," he said.
Still, he said the alert is based on clear evidence. "Suffice it to say, it came from sources that were deemed credible enough to take this public step."
Joseph Curl contributed to this report.

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