Some allies of the Department of Homeland Security within the Bush administration and members of Congress criticized Attorney General John D. Ashcroft yesterday for issuing terrorist threat warnings at a news conference on Wednesday, contending he failed to coordinate the information with the White House and with Homeland Security, which has the job of releasing threat warnings.
With FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III by his side, Ashcroft said at a news conference two days ago that "credible intelligence, from multiple sources, indicates that al Qaeda plans to attempt an attack on the United States in the next few months. . . . This disturbing intelligence indicates al Qaeda's specific intention is to hit the U.S. hard." He added that the information has been "corroborated on a variety of levels."
Under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and Bush administration rules, only the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can publicly issue threat warnings, and they must be approved in a complex interagency process involving the White House. Administration officials sympathetic to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said he was not informed Ashcroft was going to characterize the threat in that way -- an assertion that Justice officials deny.
Earlier Wednesday, Ridge appeared on five news shows saying that although the prospect of a terrorist attack is significant, Americans should "go about living their lives and enjoying living in this country," as he said on CBS.
Last night, the White House played down the turf battle. Deputy White House communications director Brian Besanceney said Mueller, Ashcroft and Ridge, who meet with President Bush every day, "discussed this issue with the president on more than one occasion and they agreed on the strategy and the seriousness of the threat. There was agreement on the way forward."
Yesterday, Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security and a guardian of Ridge's turf within the administration, released a statement criticizing Ashcroft.
"Dissemination by our government of sensitive terrorism warnings must be closely coordinated across our intelligence and law enforcement communities," Cox said. "In the Homeland Security Act, DHS was assigned the central coordinating role in this process. The absence of Secretary Ridge from yesterday's news conference held by the attorney general and the FBI director, 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.
"The American public, state and local law enforcement, governors and mayors, and private sector officials with responsibility for critical infrastructure all deserve crystal clarity when it comes to terrorism threat advisories," Cox said.
FBI spokeswoman Donna Spiser said that the purpose of the news conference was to build public awareness about what the FBI is doing to try to stop terrorist plots. Over the past two to three months, she said, "there has been a stream of information coming in and there is corroboration for the information more than ever before," she said.
While publicly professing only collegiality and cooperation, Ridge and Ashcroft have occasionally struggled for two years. They argued for months over whether Homeland Security agents should investigate terrorism financing, and last year Ridge agreed they could do it only under the FBI's lead.
Some administration officials also complained yesterday that Justice Department or FBI officials in private conversations with reporters may have suggested that the latest evidence of a terrorist attack is new, when it is about six weeks old, officials said.
An administration official sympathetic to Ridge said, "There's a concern that this wasn't coordinated by the system DHS has in place to communicate this kind of sensitive information."
Under administration procedures, DHS informs governors, mayors and other elected officials when threat information is to be released so they can coordinate security efforts. This week many local officials complained they had not been informed about these threats as they usually are, administration officials said.
Administration officials have been discussing for weeks whether to raise the threat alert level from yellow, or elevated risk, to orange, or high risk, but they have decided not to take the step at this point, informed sources said.