WASHINGTON -- It is inevitable that suicide bombers like those who have attacked Israeli restaurants and buses will strike the United States, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Monday as the White House answered criticism with fresh terrorism warnings.
"There will be another terrorist attack. We will not be able to stop it," Mueller told the National Association of District Attorneys meeting in suburban Alexandria, Va. "It's something we all live with."
Criticized for its response to previous information about possible attacks, the White House in recent days has increased the volume of warnings while spelling out a wider range of scary scenarios.
Mueller's sobering predictions -- "I wish I could be more optimistic" -- came one day after Vice President Dick Cheney said it was almost a certainty the United States would be attacked again by terrorists.
And, in a reminder of America's lingering vulnerability, the Justice Department's inspector general said Monday that the system for tracking foreign students is "significantly flawed" and won't be fixed by a January deadline.
Three of the Sept. 11 hijackers held student visas.
Under fire for its handling of terrorism intelligence before the September attacks, the Bush administration is fighting Democratic-led efforts to have an independent commission rather than existing congressional intelligence committees study its performance.
Calling for a commission, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said various branches of government possessed information last summer about the Sept. 11 terrorists. "Unfortunately, these and perhaps other documents were not compiled in a manner that enabled our counterterrorism experts to use them most effectively," he said.
Receiving mixed signals
Signals are mixed about the potential for a second attack.
The latest intelligence shows a marked increase in activity by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network over the past few weeks, suggesting new attacks may again be in the offing, said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
And yet the White House has not elevated the level of alert from "code yellow" and has no plan to do so, several officials said.
Yellow means there is a significant risk of attack, unchanged since the color-coded system was established in mid-March.
The intelligence is coming from a variety of sources and doesn't conclusively point to a particular target, date or method of attack, the U.S. official said. While some reports do contain specifics about attacks in the works, that information generally hasn't been corroborated, the official said.
There is an element of politics to the administration's warnings, officials acknowledged.
Stung by criticism, Bush advisers argued privately Monday that their terrorism warnings issued before Sept. 11 were not heard by the public and are now being conveniently forgotten by critics.
Thus, the blunt new warnings are designed to give Americans better notice and protect Bush against second guessing in the event of another attack, said a senior administration official with knowledge of U.S. intelligence and White House strategy.
A top White House aide said last week's criticism prompted a two-pronged political response: Bush accused Democrats of playing politics with the issue while his advisers -- hoping to make politics even more distasteful than usual -- reminded voters that America is still a target.
This official acknowledged that while talk of an attack has increased in the intelligence community, it may be because the Afghanistan war has increased U.S. access to documents and terrorist suspects -- or that terrorists are disseminating false information.
Though his remarks were intended for an audience of lawyers, Mueller's prediction of suicide bombings followed the White House script.
"I think we will see that in the future, I think it's inevitable," he said.
He said the degree of fanaticism an informant must exhibit to get into the inner circle of terrorist groups makes it difficult to penetrate the organizations and prevent attacks.
Members of the Senate intelligence panel who are routinely briefed by the White House said they also believe terrorist attacks are inevitable -- though not necessarily soon.
"I believe it's going to come," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "Now, whether you mean by imminent, is it going to happen today, tomorrow or two years? We're not sure."
The U.S. official portrayed the intelligence as marking a new peak in a high-and-low cycle of terrorist threats that counterterrorism authorities have tracked for years. The last peak was in March, when al-Qaida financial activity and communications increased, and there was a decline when al-Qaida leader Abu Zubaydah and his followers were captured in Pakistan.
Another peak in threat reporting took place last summer and is now regarded as evidence of al-Qaida's preparations for Sept. 11.
Associated Press writer John Lumpkin contributed to this report.