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Democrats warn terror { November 15 2002 }

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November 15, 2002
Little Headway in Terror War, Democrats Say

WASHINGTON, Nov. 14 American intelligence agencies came under renewed attack in Congress today for failing to find Osama bin Laden, with the increasing certainty that he is still alive prompting senior Democratic senators to brand the effort to dismantle Al Qaeda as a failure.

Even as Bush administration officials took the F.B.I. to task for a warning issued on Wednesday about possible attacks on hospitals, the F.B.I. today issued a vague and alarming alert to state and local law enforcement agencies. The alert warned that this week's message, apparently from Mr. bin Laden, plus intelligence reports and recent overseas strikes by Al Qaeda, had raised the threat of attacks.

The alert was not made public because there was no specific information about a target, officials said.

"In selecting its next targets," the F.B.I. alert said, "sources suggest Al Qaeda may favor spectacular attacks that meet several criteria: high symbolic value, mass casualties, severe damage to the American economy and maximum psychological trauma. The highest-priority targets remain within the aviation, petroleum and nuclear sectors, as well as significant national landmarks."

Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, charged that the Bush administration had been distracted from the fight against terrorism by the preparation for a possible invasion of Iraq.

"They are so focused on Iraq that they aren't paying adequate attention to the war on terror," he said in an interview.

Mr. Graham added that American intelligence agencies should undertake a crash program to identify and take action against terrorist threats in advance of any military action in Iraq.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld underscored today concerns that the United States could face increased dangers of terrorist attacks if President Bush orders military action against Iraq.

In a radio interview with Infinity Broadcasting, Mr. Rumsfeld said that Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein, might try to organize terrorist strikes against American targets if a United States-led coalition moves to disarm him by force. "I have no doubt that if he's able, he would like to see that terrorist attacks occur in the event that military action was taken," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Mr. Graham said that American intelligence agencies had failed to determine the extent of the terrorist threat even as the country prepared for war. If Mr. bin Laden is alive, he suggested, then the threat to the United States has increased. "If he is still alive and still in charge, that means Al Qaeda continues to have a highly capable and venomous leader."

The F.B.I. warning was sent today as a confidential alert to 18,000 law enforcement agencies throughout the country, but it was not issued to the public. Government officials said the threat warning would remain at the current level of Code Yellow. That was because, the officials said, that the threats were serious enough to warn state and local authorities, but not specific enough to warrant a general alert. Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been sent to an undisclosed location under previous alerts, remained in town tonight.

In the past some lawmakers have criticized the Bush administration for spreading fear by issuing public alerts without providing information about how to respond as a politically motivated effort to insulate the government from eventual criticism that it failed to act in case of attack.

But several officials said that today's warning was genuine, although they added that there was no intelligence about the time, place or method of any such attack. They acknowledged that the language of this alert was more extreme than similar alerts issued in the past; earlier alerts have seldom made reference to the expectation of large-scale attacks or possible casualties.

At the same time, however, today's warning also urged law enforcement officials to be on guard against smaller attacks with cruder materials like simple explosives.

One official said that that language was a response to the tape attributed to Mr. bin Laden played on Al Jazeera television on Tuesday, which is increasingly being viewed as authentic, and to other events, including attacks on American marines in Kuwait, and the possibility of reprisals for the killing of a Qaeda leader in Yemen by an American missile.

Tonight, Mir Aimal Kansi, the Pakistani convicted of killing two C.I.A. employees outside the agency's headquarters in 1993, was executed, adding to concerns about reprisals.

Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader from South Dakota, said the inability to find Mr. bin Laden was a sign of deeper problems in the war on terror. "We can't find bin Laden, we haven't made real progress in finding key elements of Al Qaeda. They continue to be as great a threat today as they were one and a half years ago. So by what measure can we claim to be successful so far?"

Today's warning was the clearest sign yet of the near certainty in intelligence circles that the audiotaped message broadcast earlier this week, praising terror attacks in Bali and Kuwait, was an authentic recording by Mr. bin Laden.

A C.I.A. technical analysis of the tape continued today, but without a final determination whether the voice on it was Mr. bin Laden's.

American officials said that the number of intercepted communications and informant reports had increased in recent days.

The language of the alert was considered by representatives of several executive branch agencies before it was distributed to law enforcement. "This document was coordinated through an interagency process," a White House official said tonight. "It was decided that given the current threat situation it was appropriate that it go out in its present form."

Law enforcement officials dismissed the attacks from Senate Democrats as political grandstanding. "We've busted up cells in Buffalo, Detroit and Portland, we've caught several of bin Laden's chief lieutenants, we have driven the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, and we haven't had another attack here since 9/11," a law enforcement official said. "I would say, all in all, were doing an excellent job."

However, not everyone exuded such confidence. "The anxiety level is probably as high as it has been since the anthrax attacks," said one F.B.I. supervisor.

The dissatisfaction over the performance of American intelligence agencies, particularly the F.B.I., appeared to have deepened in recent days. Today a group headed by James S. Gilmore III, a former Republican governor of Virginia, concluded that a new domestic intelligence agency should be established.

"We've got to gather this kind of information so we can disrupt the enemy before they attack us," Mr. Gilmore said in an interview after testifying before a House military subcommittee.

The F.B.I. was under fire today from some Bush administration officials for sending out a confidential alert on Wednesday warning of possible attacks at hospitals in Washington, Chicago, Houston and San Francisco. "There are some raised eyebrows here as to why they would put out something like this," said an administration official. "This was a report that didn't have a lot of credibility, then it goes out and now you really have anxiety levels raised in these cities. It was unnecessary."

The F.B.I. has been criticized from many sides in recent weeks, and more bad news is expected on Friday. The Justice Department's inspector general is expected to issue a report critical of the bureau's disciplinary procedures. The report is expected to highlight a double standard in which senior executives have been given lighter punishments for wrongdoing than rank-and-file agents, according to government officials.

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