Intelligence officials are meeting at the White House Thursday to discuss the nation's readiness for possible terrorist strikes against the U.S.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff caused a stir on Tuesday when he said he had a "gut feeling" that the nation faces an increased risk of attack this summer. He cited increased activity by al-Qaida overseas and a history of summertime attacks.
But Democrats have complained about the lack of details.
Secretary Chertoff made his remarks in a one hour meeting with the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune. His "gut feeling" remark came at the end of an answer in which he talked about signs he has been noticing for weeks. The bombing attempts in Great Britain, last summer's thwarted aviations attacks and indications that al-Qaida is re-grouping.
"All of these things give me a kind of gut feeling that we are in a period of, not that I have a specific threat that I have in mind right now, but that we are entering a period of increased vulnerability," he said.
Yesterday, Chertoff clarified his remark during an interview with NPR, saying, "To me the phrase "gut feeling" was just perhaps a little more colloquial way of saying informed judgment or informed conclusion.
"I am worried about increased capability, the fact that time has passed where they've tried and have not succeeded in attacking us. And it causes me to believe that we ought to be (even) more vigilant this summer, perhaps, than we would have been six months ago."
And, indeed, intelligence officials have been saying for months that they are seeing a resurgent, more active al-Qaida, especially in Pakistan.
But the lack of details in Chertoff's warnings has caused some consternation, especially among Democrats. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson wrote a letter to Chertoff noting that the government already has an official warning system, the color-coded alerts.
"What color code in the Homeland Security Advisory System is associated with a "gut feeling?" Thompson asked.
Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health & Homeland Security, said he was disturbed by Chertoff's remarks, too.
"The American people are well aware there is a threat, and I don't see this casual comment advancing the ball very much. And I find it troubling in terms of the overt lack of preparedness on the part of the administration," Greenberger said.
Greenberger noted recent reports that many top jobs at the Homeland Security Department remain unfilled. He also said there is confusion over the color-coded alert system, in part because many people believe it was used politically in the early days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"And even though it's still in existence, it's unusable because no one takes it seriously," Greenberger said. And I worry that the secretary's comment is just going to present itself as an amendment to our color-coded system."
But George Foresman, who until recently was in charge of preparedness at Homeland Security, said Chertoff is dealing with a very inexact science, trying to keep people from becoming too complacent at a time when officials know al-Qaida would like to attack.
"And I think the challenge he runs into, is how do you find the right balance with maintaining the level of vigilance, while also making sure that people aren't running around fearful each and every day," Foresman said.
He said the color-coded alert system is used to address more identifiable threats, which call for more specific responses, such as banning liquids from airplanes when a plot to use liquid explosives is uncovered. Foresman said it is the vague threats that are more troublesome, especially when it comes to warning the public.
"If something were to happen next week or a month from now, or two months from now, are these same folks who are raising these issues now, would they be the ones to criticize and say, hey, why didn't you do anything about it?" he asked.
And the issue is not likely to go away. Intelligence analysts are nearing completion of a new report assessing the overall threat to the United States.