WASHINGTON – The FBI and Justice Department are taking some heat for warning of possible summer terror attacks, with some Bush administration officials and lawmakers saying the intelligence may be overblown.
These officials and members of Congress with access to the same intelligence reports said the Wednesday announcement by Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) and FBI Director Robert Mueller (search) was overblown and caused unnecessary public worry.
But Justice and FBI officials argue that warning the public about even the possibility of a devastating terror attack in this country was justified by intelligence and may avert a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Homeland security officials told Fox News they were "somewhat taken aback" by Ashcroft's characterization of the threat information. The Department of Homeland Security describes the intelligence as a "steady stream" over several weeks — some of it credible — but "nothing new or specific as to means of attack."
"We do not have any new intelligence or specific information about Al Qaeda planning an attack," said agency spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.
The officials also stressed that while the public should be alert and vigilant, they should go about their lives.
But Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) said Friday that there is no turf war or disagreement between his agency and the Justice Department over threat warnings.
"We communicate every day. We talk every day. We collaborate our efforts every day," Ridge said after signing an agreement with the European Union on sharing of air passenger information. "Whatever we can do to put that unfortunate story to rest, we need to do it immediately."
Ridge and Ashcroft also issued a joint statement Friday saying their agencies are cooperating closely to deal with the terror threat.
"We are working together, and we will take all necessary actions to protect the American people" including increasing the color-coded terror threat level if warranted, Ridge and Ashcroft said.
Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the Ashcroft-Mueller news conference on Wednesday mistakenly led some to believe the nation's threat level had been increased.
He called it "regrettable" that Ridge, who made a round of television appearances Wednesday, did not join Ashcroft and Mueller.
"Their separate public appearances left the impression that the broad and close interagency consultation we expect — and which the law requires — may not have taken place in this case," Cox said.
DHS kept the color-coded threat level at yellow, the midpoint on a five-color scale, raising questions as to whether there was dissent in the Bush administration about how to interpret the threat intelligence.
"It is confusing that this administration would indicate that Al Qaeda is far along the road to planning a major attack in the United States but not raise the threat level," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Scott McClellan said the president had been working with all of the departments on how best to get the message out and that no one was left out of the loop.
Ashcroft said Wednesday that, "disturbing intelligence indicates Al Qaeda's specific intention to hit the United States hard" and that an attack could happen "within the next few months."
While "we do not have specific information about the origin of a specific terrorist plan," Ashcroft said, "I think it's fair to say this is intelligence that's come in over time. This isn't a one shot or other thing."
Mueller and Ashcroft also told the public to be on the lookout for seven specific individuals who are wanted because of their ties to Al Qaeda.
"What they're doing is putting this alert out -- we have Amber Alerts for children that are missing, we have America's Most Wanted; this makes sense to me -- this could deter an attack or throw a monkey wrench in one," said Peter Brookes, a former CIA intelligence officer and current senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Reason for Concern?
Cassandra Chandler, assistant FBI director for public affairs, acknowledged intelligence about the threat has been coming in for some time. However, she said it now is being backed by a higher degree of corroboration and that its sheer volume was noteworthy.
She said the announcement was intended to demonstrate that the FBI was focused on trying to thwart an attack. "This clearly demonstrates our commitment to prevention," Chandler said.
A law enforcement official told Fox News that they are unaware of any difference of opinion between FB, Justice and Homeland Security officials who have access to terror information. There isn't a split in the war on terror among the upper-level officials, the official said.
"What we are dealing with is a threat to the United States — that we are concerned that there may be a group of individuals here poised for an attack," the law enforcement official said.
"There is increased concern knowing Al Qaeda's interest in spectacular attacks and their desire to create economic harm or some type of psychological impact. We believe Al Qaeda has gone to school on the Madrid bombings, that they think they can impact democracies in a way they never imagined before — with the elections, conventions and other high profile events this summer, it gives us cause for concern. The intelligence we have doesn't speak to the means of attack but there is information out there."
But officials from the three agencies do privately say there is a dispute over how the threat information should be handled and who was informed about Wednesday's press conference and when.
Strategy to 'Defeat the Bad Guys'
FBI officials also emphasized to Fox News the concern over the upcoming political events and for potential truck bombs.
In a bulletin sent out to law enforcement officials this week, the FBI told officials to be alert to people who have a commercial driver's license to transport hazardous materials or who buys a "heavy vehicle" such as an ambulance, bus, van, or utility vehicle.
"The intelligence about the threat has been coming in for some time, but it is backed by a higher degree of corroboration — its volume is noteworthy," FBI official Bill Carter told Fox News. "The [Wednesday] announcement was intended to demonstrate that the FBI is focused on trying to thwart an attack."
Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security, said, "we're well-coordinated and we're articulating the same message."
Justice officials also say publicity about terror threats can deter operations, sometimes delaying them to give investigators more time to find the operatives.
"It's part of our strategy to defeat the bad guys," said Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo. "It puts them on edge."
Publicity about the threat are in contrast to the FBI's actions in the summer of 2001, when intelligence officials warned President Bush of terror threats in an Aug. 6 memo (search) called "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."
Testimony to Congress and the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks showed the FBI lacked a national, coordinated response to 2001 threats.
Before making the latest public announcement, Mueller said he spoke to agents in charge of all 56 field offices about "the heightened threat" and urged them to devote whatever manpower and resources necessary to counter it. The FBI also has a special task force to focus specifically on the threat.
"We don't want to repeat the problems we had in the summer of 2001," said Michael Greenberger, a former counterterrorism official in President Clinton's Justice Department and now a University of Maryland professor. "You have to circle the wagons and put on a full-court press. You can't just sit there waiting for actionable intelligence."
New publicity about the seven Al Qaeda suspects being sought — six of whom have been pursued by the FBI for months — had generated more than 2,000 tips to an FBI Web site since Wednesday afternoon. It normally receives 200 terrorism-related leads every day.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge, Anna Stolley and The Associated Press contributed to this report.