Video: Threat level leaves some confused

By David Gregory Chief White House correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/23/2003 9:39:40 PM ET 2003-12-24T02:39:40

America’s “Code Orange” Christmas seems at odds with all the progress President Bush has reported in the war on terror.

On Dec. 5, President Bush said, “We have captured or killed many of the key leaders of the al-Qaida network, and the rest of them know we’re on their trail.”

The capture of Saddam Hussein and the war in Iraq, says President Bush, makes America safer.

“We’re on the offensive.  We’re aggressively striking the terrorists in Iraq.  We will defeat them there so we do not have to face them in our own country,” the president said Nov. 25.

But the intelligence behind the latest terror warning calls into question the administration’s report card on the war.  Al-Qaida remains organized enough to plot and powerful enough, say officials, to land a massive attack.

Indeed, in an audiotape released last week, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Al Zawahiri, warned that al-Qaida is “chasing Americans everywhere — even in their homeland.”

Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said, “If you take out even some of the top leadership, some of the lower-level cells are able to function on their own. They are flexible, they adapt, they are evil, but they are not stupid.”

As for the success against al-Qaida — the arrests and the freezing of its assets — experts warn it’s not enough to keep terrorists out of the United States.

“It does not address the larger issue of how sleeper cells and militant Islamic activists, those that are recruited for al-Qaida, can stay under the radar screen,” according to terrorism expert Steve Emerson.

But is the threat overstated? One senior Arab official close to the White House calls al-Qaida more of an annoyance now than a real threat.

Officials like the vice president sound more concerned, “They’re still doing everything they can to acquire ever deadlier weapons to use against us,” Dick Cheney said.

It’s still possible of course that the mere threat of a large-scale attack is the only form of terrorism al-Qaida is still capable of in the United States.  But no one in the administration is prepared to bet on that.

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