WASHINGTON – The current terrorism threat level will probably be lowered from its current high-risk, or orange, status sometime in the near future, says Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
Ridge said Sunday he was confident the terror risk status would be lowered, but did not say exactly when. And he acknowledged that gauging when a terror threat is imminent is very difficult.
The secretary said on ABC's This Week that U.S. intelligence officials were evaluating a new tape, purportedly of Usama bin Laden saying American war plans against Iraq are part of a broader plot against Muslim nations.
While the release of statements from bin Laden have foreshadowed past terrorist attacks, Ridge said he saw no "trigger" in the latest tape.
"But there is no rhyme or reason to when they attack," he said. "Ultimately they attack when they are ready."
The speaker on the tape said the goal of any U.S. war against Iraq would be to alter the map of the Middle East to benefit Israel. The recording appeared to be the same 53-minute tape from which a few excerpts were released Thursday by the British-based Islamic Al-Ansaar news agency.
It began appearing in full Sunday on Islamic-oriented Web sites. Al-Ansaar had said it acquired the tape from a seller who advertised it over the Internet.
Ridge also said intelligence operatives were keeping tabs on 20 to 40 people in the United States who have trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, but said not enough evidence had been gathered to take them into custody.
"We know that they've got a rather substantial network. But this is a country that operates under the rule of law. There are restrictions to what we can do and when can do it," he said. "When the rule of law and the burden of proof gets us to where we can take action, then I assure you we will."
Ridge defended the Bush administration's decision last week to increase the level to the second from the top on a color-coded scale of five, even though the government later determined that some of the information which led to the upgrading was likely fabricated.
"The decision to raise it to orange was not based on one or two sources," he said.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saturday that the end of the hajj -- the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy Mecca -- was causing officials to consider seriously lowering the threat level.
Ridge defended the government's attempts to inform the public about different dangers they could face and the best information they have on the threat level.
"If you tell them there are certain things they can do in the unlikely but possible chance that they may be caught in the middle of a terrorist attack, having been prepared should hopefully reduce, almost eliminate, the anxiety level," he said. Ridge said that information could help people "improve the safety of their own lives."
Ridge will present a "Ready Campaign" Wednesday encouraging the public to have a communication plan with their family, to prepare an emergency supply kit and to "stay alert on a day to day basis."
"Terrorists give us a choice," Ridge said later on Late Edition. We can either be afraid, or we can be ready."