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Lawmakers say new terrorist attack almost certain

Sen. Bob Graham
Sen. Bob Graham  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- While pronouncing the United States safer against terrorism than it was a year ago, leading lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee said Monday it's almost assured that this country will face another terrorist attack within the next few years.

"There is a likelihood almost to the point of certainty that over the next say, three to five years, that there will be another terrorist attack inside the U.S.," said Sen. Bob Graham, the chairman of the committee. Graham, D-Florida, based that timeline on "the historical pattern" of the terrorist network al Qaeda, but he said "there is no empirical data" that points to a likely time.

"We don't know the specifics, the time and the place, but we have great reason to believe that we could be hit anytime in the next few years," said Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence panel.

The two men spoke to CNN Monday following weekend reports that U.S. intelligence officials have detected increased activity by suspected al Qaeda terrorists. Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday that another terrorist attack is "not a matter of if, but when."

"In my opinion, the prospects of a future attack against the United States are almost certain," he told NBC's Meet The Press. "I'd like to be able to say it's never going to happen again, but I don't think anybody who's really looked at it can say that."

Like Cheney, the two lawmakers said the latest information lacked specifics, but said it points to the need for the United States to shore up its defense.

"We have to be ready for it," Shelby said.

Graham said "America is safer" because the United States and allies have "crippled the command and control" of al Qaeda.

"We also have increased the security of some of the more vulnerable aspects, such as airlines and airports, but we've got a lot of work to do," he said.

Graham pointed to U.S. seaports as potentially vulnerable.

"I'm very concerned for instance about our seaports, which are basically as exposed today as they were a year ago," the Florida Democrat said.

Citing an "abundance of caution," the FBI is asking apartment managers to be on alert for suspicious activity, based on "indications" that al Qaeda leaders "discussed" the possibility of renting apartments in various parts of the country and rigging them with explosives, an FBI official told CNN over the weekend.

The official, who could not say how the FBI came across this information, said it has "no information" the "proposed plot advanced beyond the discussion stage."

The FBI has not issued a formal alert or advisory because the information is "uncorroborated" and is not specific to any city or region, the official said.

Turning to the controversy over what the White House knew about possible terrorist attacks before September 11 -- when four U.S. jets were hijacked and crashed, killing more than 3,000 people -- Shelby said he did not fault President Bush.

"It's not what the president knew; he knew very little. He didn't know any more than we did," said Shelby, who last week called it "troubling" that the White House only recently revealed that Bush received an intelligence report in August that raised the possibility of a hijacking involving Osama bin Laden.

"What I worry about is what he could have known, had the FBI, for example, done their work, managed their information, shared their information with the CIA, with the National Security Agency and others, but they didn't," Shelby said.

Some lawmakers and observers say that a series of reports, memos, observations and even one arrest last summer should have, collectively, alerted the federal government to the potential for a major terrorist attack before September 11.

One such item was a July memo from an FBI agent in Arizona who questioned whether bin Laden was behind what seemed to be a large number of Arab students taking flight lessons in the United States. Critics say that memo should have received more analysis and attention.

--CNN White House Correspondent Kelly Wallace contributed to this report




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