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Rumsfeld - Terrorists inevitably will get deadly weapons

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Terrorists are sure to eventually acquire and use nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday.

Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and North Korea are developing such weapons of mass destruction and will supply them to terrorists to which they already are linked, Rumsfeld said.

"They (terrorists) inevitably will get their hands on them and they will not hesitate to use them," Rumsfeld told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.

Meantime, Tom Ridge, who heads the White House office of domestic security, said new terror warnings have not prompted U.S. officials to raise the nationwide alert status because the intelligence on possible attacks is too vague.

Rumsfeld declined to discuss specific terrorist threats, saying the government sees hundreds a day and as many as 90 percent of them are designed to test the government's response.

"They jerk us around, try to jerk us around, and test us," Rumsfeld said.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that while the war on terror has hurt al-Qaida, the terrorist network remains a threat. "Just like a wounded animal is the most dangerous, they (al-Qaida) still pose a threat to our armed forces," Myers said.

At his White House briefing, press secretary Ari Fleischer said he hadn't heard Rumsfeld's exact words, but that "the secretary knows what the president knows and that is that we're in the middle of a war to protect the country and diminish the ability of people who would do us harm from getting their hands on such weapons."

Rumsfeld's warning was the latest administration voice suggesting another attack is inevitable. Last weekend Vice President Dick Cheney said another attack is a near certainty.

Fleischer said there was no organized administration campaign to heighten public awareness of another attack, though he said the president worries about complacency. The intensifying administration rhetoric resulted from increased terrorist "chatter" that investigators have picked up, and from the "controversy" last week over Bush's learning in August that Osama bin Laden wanted to hijack U.S. airplanes, Fleischer said.

But, he added: "I think the American people recognize that when you're in a war you have an enemy that is going to try to attack back. We have, after Sept. 11, brought the war to the enemy. It does not surprise the American people that the enemy will now try to bring the war back to the United States. That's the definition of a war, and unfortunately we are in one."

Ridge said predictions that terrorists may target unnamed apartment buildings, for example, were not enough to change the nation's security alert from "yellow" -- the third-highest of five stages -- and retain the system's credibility.

"It wasn't actionable in the sense that we're going to change a national level of awareness, but it was informational," Ridge told the World Economic Forum at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Faced with criticism for belatedly releasing terrorist information it had before the Sept. 11 attacks, the administration may routinely release intelligence information, he added.

"We have two choices: You can either keep it to yourselves or you can share it," Ridge said. "And under the circumstances, depending on the source and the specificity and a few other circumstances and conditions, we may share it."

The predictions are based in part on new intelligence suggesting plotting by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network has been on the rise over the past few weeks, said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But this sort of increase in volume has happened several times before -- even since Sept. 11.

The official portrayed the intelligence as 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 stepped up. That was linked to al-Qaida leader Abu Zubaydah, who was subsequently captured in Pakistan.

Another peak in threat reporting took place last summer and is now regarded as evidence of al-Qaida's preparations for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and Washington. Other peaks have come and gone, and no attack has taken place.

Publicly, officials are making sobering warnings.

"There will be another terrorist attack. We will not be able to stop it," FBI Director Robert Mueller told a meeting of the National Association of District Attorneys on Monday. "It's something we all live with."

He said suicide bombers like those who have attacked Israeli buses and restaurants are inevitable in the United States.

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.

Under fire for its handling of terrorism intelligence before the September attacks, the administration is fighting Democratic-led efforts to have an independent commission rather than existing congressional intelligence committees study its performance.

Democrats last week pointed to the disclosure of a July 10 memo from a Phoenix FBI agent who was concerned about a large number of Arabs seeking pilot, security and airport operations training at at least one U.S. flight school, along with the disclosure that Bush had been told in an Aug. 6 intelligence briefing that al-Qaida might attempt a hijacking aimed at Americans. The administration has said the information was not specific enough for it to take concrete action.

The Justice Department said Monday that Attorney General John Ashcroft did not learn until weeks ago of the Phoenix memorandum.

FBI agent Kenneth Williams, who wrote the Phoenix memo, and Mueller arranged to brief the Senate Judiciary Committee on the memo later Tuesday.

The New York Times in Tuesday's editions reported that Ashcroft and Mueller were told a few days after Sept. 11 about the Phoenix memo. The newspaper said neither Ashcroft nor Mueller briefed Bush and his national security staff until recently about the contents of the memo. Fleischer said it was the last week or two; He did not know what finally prompted Mueller and Ashcroft to tell Bush.

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