Attorney General John Ashcroft faced a barrage of criticism yesterday over his announcement that al Qaeda was planning to strike America over the summer, with the White House having to step in to clear up conflicting public messages.
Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican and chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, accused Mr. Ashcroft of usurping the Homeland Security Department’s role at the center of the decision-making process about publicizing terror threats.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s absence from Wednesday’s press conference “and the conflicting public messages their separate public appearances delivered to the nation, suggests that the broad and close interagency consultation we expect — and which the law requires — did not take place in this case,” Mr. Cox said.
Rep. Jim Turner, Texas Democrat and ranking member of the committee, said if the suggestion were true, there was clearly “a lack of coordination between the two key public agencies involved in homeland security.”
“Almost three years after September 11, we have yet to see a full integration and coordination of our efforts to make America safer,” he concluded.
A Justice Department official said Mr. Cox’s comments were “not worth responding to.”
“This was coordinated at the highest levels,” said the Justice Department official, declining to respond to specific questions about what other agencies had been told regarding the content of the press conference. “I would say that everyone is on the same page.”
But a Homeland Security official and a congressional staffer — independently using the same words — said that Homeland Security officials knew about Wednesday’s press conference but were “completely blindsided” by the nature of the announcement.
At the press conference, Mr. Ashcroft warned, “Credible intelligence from multiple sources indicates that al Qaeda plans to attempt an attack on the United States in the next few months.”
But Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said yesterday that his agency has seen no change in the “steady stream of threat reporting.”
Even before Mr. Ashcroft spoke, Mr. Ridge had earlier said that the intelligence was not sufficiently alarming to warrant raising the nation’s color-coded alert level and that the Homeland Security Council had not even met to consider such a move.
The congressional staffer said Homeland Security “thought [the press conference] was only to reissue” “Be On the Look Out” warnings for seven individuals thought to be linked to al Qaeda.
“It was a much stronger message, a much broader warning than anyone had anticipated,” the staffer said.
The staffer also said that the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, supposedly the central clearinghouse for all threat information, had been kept in the dark about the nature of the announcement.
“Ashcroft was outside the corral,” added the Homeland Security official, saying that the announcement was “not coordinated properly across the federal family.”
The official said the White House had stepped in “to put the toys back in the sandpit” and “clear up the confusion” by hosting a conference call yesterday with state homeland-security advisers.
White House spokeswoman Erin Healey said it was “not uncommon” for the White House to lead such calls as “part of our coordination efforts.”