Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge indicated yesterday that a senior member of al Qaeda, newly brought into U.S. custody, is providing information that is useful to investigators.
But Ridge declined to identify the operative, where he was found, or his role in Osama bin Laden's terrorism network, maintaining the cryptic nature of the Bush administration's references in recent days to the arrest, even as officials have cited it as evidence of progress in their anti-terror campaign.
Asked on the television talk show, "Fox News Sunday," whether this detainee was providing insight into al Qaeda's operations, Ridge replied, "That's correct." He did not elaborate.
Ridge made appearances on three Sunday news programs, seeking to deflect fresh criticism that the "war on terrorism," which President Bush has defined as a top priority, is making too little headway.
Ridge de-emphasized the significance of a six-page letter -- purportedly delivered last week by an al Qaeda official to a reporter for al-Jazeera, a television network widely viewed in the Arab world -- that warned of further attacks on Washington and New York. "We've heard them before," Ridge said of the threats, during his appearance on ABC's "This Week."
Similarly, he played down the FBI's latest warning to law enforcement agencies, issued last Thursday night, which said that bin Laden's aides may be planning "spectacular" violence against the United States and that the threats appeared more serious than those intercepted in the weeks before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Ridge yesterday called the intelligence reports that culminated in that warning "piecemeal" and said they did not prompt federal officials to change the color code of the terrorism threat level -- currently yellow, or the middle rung on a five-tier scale the administration has adopted as a public gauge of the possible peril the nation faces.
As Ridge talked up the administration's campaign, congressional Democrats continued to try to portray Bush as ineffectual in defanging foreign terrorist threats and making Americans safe at home. "I'd like to tell you I feel profoundly more secure, but I don't," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
In particular, Dodd criticized the administration's strongly worded but nonspecific warnings. He called them "sort of Chicken Little alerts" and said, "it looks to me as if people are trying to cover themselves here in case something happens."