Thu, Jul 15, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Temporary CIA chief says terror threat `very serious'


The terrorist threat against the US in the run-up to the November election is as serious as at any time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, acting CIA Director John McLaughlin said on Tuesday.

"This is about as serious a threat environment as I have seen since 9/11," said McLaughlin, the deputy director who took over on Sunday pending appointment of a permanent successor to Director George Tenet who resigned amid criticism of the agency's performance.

"The quality of the information we have now is such that we have high confidence that the nation needs to be on guard," the acitng director told reporters during a telephone interview.

He said the threats were not pinned specifically to the Democratic and Republican political conventions this summer but to the whole period before the November presidential election.

"It's related to this period during which the country is exercising its democracy, it's this period particularly in the run-up to the election, but it's always a mistake in the counterterrorism business to focus uniquely on a date," McLaughlin said. The attackers would strike when they are ready and not because of a specific date, he said.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, earlier on Tuesday told reporters that "the chatter and the texture of the chatter is the highest it's been since 9/11."

"Chatter" refers to communication among terrorism suspects.

"There's a lot of members taking second thoughts about attending conventions," Roberts said, but added that he planned to attend.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge renewed public warnings last week of possible attacks by al-Qaeda in the US this year, but offered no details and said there were no plans to raise the terror threat level.

"Credible reporting now indicates that al-Qaeda is moving forward with its plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the United States in an effort to disrupt our democratic process," Ridge said.

The Senate Intelligence Committee issued a scathing report on Friday that faulted spy agencies for flawed intelligence before last year's invasion of Iraq, which indicated Baghdad had stockpiles of banned weapons. No such weapons were found.

McLaughlin said the CIA had admitted the estimates were not all correct, and had done an internal review of sources, assumptions and spying methods before the Senate report.

"This is a town that loves to assign blame and if blame can be pinned on someone then everyone is happy to say `OK, now let's move on,'" he said.

"I think that's the wrong way to think about it," he said, adding intelligence professionals had to figure out what lessons can be learned to improve their work.

There will always be some ambiguity to the question about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the war because of the widespread looting of potentially key information after the US-led invasion, McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said he did not know what plans the White House had for permanently filling the CIA director post.

"At this point about all I can tell you is they have asked me to be the acting director," he said. "I'm happy to do this and if they choose someone else, I'll work with that person to get them established and launched."

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