Chertoff remark on terror risk elicits little alarm

/ Source: The Associated Press

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s “gut feeling” about an increased terrorist risk this summer did not send law enforcement officials scrambling for increased security, although authorities said Wednesday his remark emphasized the need for vigilance.

“Not to contradict any other statement, but it doesn’t matter the time of year,” said Miami-Dade police Lt. Nancy Perez. “We must remain on alert 365 days a year.”

Chertoff made the comment Tuesday to the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, telling the newspaper he based his assessment on earlier patterns of terrorists in Europe and intelligence he would not disclose.

“Summertime seems to be appealing to them,” Chertoff said. “We worry that they are rebuilding their activities.”

In New York, the nation’s No. 1 terrorist target, the state chief of homeland security said security had already been ramped up in the wake of attacks in London and Glasgow. Michael Balboni said he anticipated a “busy summer season in terms of threats,” adding there was nothing specific indicated.

“We have to keep our vigilance high,” Balboni said. “This is simply to say, ‘Don’t fall asleep at the switch.’ That includes the public. We can’t rely only on the police officer on the corner.”

Chertoff’s statement took on greater significance on Wednesday with word that U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded al-Qaida has rebuilt its operating capability to a level not seen since just before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Massachusetts governor criticizes Chertoff
Al-Qaida is “considerably operationally stronger than a year ago” and has “regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001,” a counterterrorism official told The Associated Press, paraphrasing an intelligence report’s conclusions.

Before the report emerged, however, Chertoff drew scorn over his “gut feeling” remark on Monday.

“I don’t think any of us are able to plan or prepare on a gut feeling,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said. “If there’s information, we expect it to be shared.... Frankly, I don’t think it is helpful to have the secretary of homeland security telling us what he feels. He should tell us what he knows.”

Patrick stressed that Massachusetts authorities were already maintaining “a level of constant vigilance” before Chertoff’s remark.

The situation was the same in Los Angeles, where police had already tightened security at airports, financial districts and Hollywood nightclub areas after the European attacks. Deputy Chief Michael Downing, commanding officer of the LAPD’s Counterterrorism Criminal Intelligence Bureau, said he understood Chertoff’s suspicions.

“That’s what police work is,” he said. “The art of policing is instincts. If your instinct tells you something, you prepare, prevent, protect and pursue.”

In Chicago, law enforcement officials said they interpreted Chertoff’s statement as a reminder to remain wary during the summer season of outdoor festivals and other large events.

The White House supported Chertoff for stressing the importance of being vigilant. “I’m glad we’ve got a Homeland Security secretary that worries about it all the time,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said Wednesday.