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Out of sync on warning?


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After two days of conflicting assessments and mixed signals on the urgency of the terrorist threat within the United States, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge late Friday issued a joint statement citing "credible intelligence" of a threat to the nation.

The move appears designed to show unity in the Bush administration's efforts to protect the home front.

The statement's wording was very similar to that used by Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller in their midweek press conference, which had riled some Homeland Security and other law enforcement officials.

"Credible intelligence from multiple sources indicates that al Qaeda plans to attempt an attack on the United States during this period," Ashcroft and Ridge's statement said, referring to the period leading up to the November elections.

Homeland Security officials at both the federal and state level had expressed skepticism, and some outright criticism of the news conference Ashcroft and Mueller gave Wednesday.

Ridge's absence at the conference prompted questions about the urgency of the intelligence cited.

Despite the heightened concern by the attorney general and the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security said it was not raising the threat level from "yellow," or "elevated," to "orange," or "high."

Ridge seemed to fuel the controversy by stressing in televised interviews that the intelligence did not appear to be new, and that he had been more concerned about the level of danger over the Christmas holiday period.

"We could go back over the past two years and pick out threat reports of pretty much the same substance," Ridge said.

But Friday's statement emphasized the agencies are now determined to be on the same page.

"The Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, in partnership with the FBI, CIA, the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and other agencies, jointly review threat information each and every day," the four-paragraph written statement said.

"We are working together and we will take all necessary actions to protect the American people, including raising the threat level or alerting the public to be on the lookout for possible terrorist suspects whenever warranted by the information we receive."

Earlier Friday, an administration official said the Justice Department had been "taken to task" for not coordinating its announcement with Homeland Security and other agencies.

"All parties involved have been asked to ensure the greatest cooperation when announcing threat information," the official said.

One state Homeland official exclaimed, "They could have told us ahead of time!"

On Wednesday morning before the Justice Department press conference, an administration source said President Bush asked Ashcroft and Ridge if they were in sync.

They said yes, believing Bush was referring to the release of lookouts for suspicious persons.

But the Department of Homeland Security was caught off-guard by Ashcroft's dire interpretation of the current intelligence. On this, they were not in sync.

Homeland officials have expressed concern that the lack of coordination undermined the department's relationship with state and local officials who were left, one official said, "shrugging their shoulders" and wondering what to do.

A day after the photographs of seven terrorism suspects were released at Ashcroft and Mueller's press conference, the FBI reported receiving more than 2,000 tips from the public and it is asking for more.

However, some say the Justice Department's warning left the public in the same state.

"I think it confuses them and frankly angers them because they don't know what to expect from their government. What's the credible thing that they're supposed to be responding to?" asked David Heyman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


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