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Analysts say US threat warning is back-covering
Updated: 2004-05-27 09:07

A vague new U.S. warning that al Qaeda may be planning a massive attack smacks of political back-covering and campaigning, not just a call for heightened vigilance, analysts and former government officials say.

US Attorney General John Ashcroft, right, accompanied by FBI Director Robert Mueller meets reporters at FBI headquarters in Washington Wednesday, May 26, 2004, to discuss terror threats.  [AP]
Stung by accusations that the Bush administration ignored key intelligence in the run-up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials may now be issuing warnings to prove to Americans they are on the ball this time, say terrorism analysts on both sides of the political fence.

"Apparently there were warnings over 9/11 and nothing came out to the public before that, and they've paid a dear price for that," said Jonathan Schanzer, a terrorism analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"They need to alert the public that there could be something coming down the pike, in which case, don't say we didn't tell you," he said.

One former national security official in the Bush administration told Reuters: "This is more butt-covering than anything else."

Critics say the new threat warnings may also just be a ploy to shore up the president's job approval ratings or divert attention from the increasingly unpopular Iraq campaign.

But some analysts say the announcement on Wednesday that the United States had credible but unspecified information on possible terror attacks in the next few months would lead to tighter security and could act as a deterrent to militants.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said several upcoming events -- which include two major American holidays, a Group of Eight summit, political party conventions, and U.S. elections in November -- could be attractive targets for al Qaeda.

This composite image, courtesy of the FBI, shows people sought for questioning in connction with possible terrorist threats on the US. Amer El-Maati, Aafia Siddiqui, Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Adam Yahite Gadahn, Aberraouf Jdey and Ahmed Khafan Ghailani. [AFP]
"It is certainly an appropriate cry for all of us to remain vigilant," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism analyst at the RAND think tank.

Asked whether he worried about skeptics who say "you're just protecting your behind," Ashcroft told a news conference: "I just don't think my job is to worry about what skeptics say. My job is to do everything I can to protect the American people and to help the American people protect themselves."


But beyond urging citizens to be on their guard, officials failed to suggest what Americans should do to help mitigate the threat. They said the government had no plans to raise the terror threat level or announce new precautions, and gave no details on when, where or how it might occur.

New York and Los Angeles, two of the biggest U.S. cities, said they had not been briefed on any new threats.

"Most people feel that just a generalized 'be concerned about things' is not that useful," said Randall Yim, head of the homeland security division at the government's General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

"It's like the old Wendy's (fast food) commercial: 'Where's the beef?"' the former Bush administration official said.

Some critical voices say the government may also be hoping the warnings could score political points on national security that could boost U.S. President Bush's flagging popularity ahead of the November elections.

Schanzer said the administration was probably aware that the threat warning could help lift ratings, but said "they are not exploiting this in a way they probably could."

Still, "there's no doubt that increased activity on this front, leading up to the election, could strengthen the president's position," he said.

One prominent terrorism expert, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, said Bush may also be trying to staunch increasing criticism of the Iraq campaign by underlining the link in the public's mind between Iraq and security at home.

"The president is running as a war president, so the timing is interesting," he said, pointing to a speech by Bush on Monday that made frequent references to terrorist threats.

"I wonder if there's not a connection to the president's speech when he mentioned terrorism 18 times in the context of Iraq. Isn't this a very convenient way of linking back to the United States that Iraq is part of the broader war on terrorism?" he said.

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