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Chertoff sees elevated risk

E.A. Torriero Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – Fearing complacency among the American people over possible terror threats, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in Chicago on Tuesday that the nation faces a heightened chance of an attack this summer.

“I believe we are entering a period this summer of increased risk,” Chertoff told the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board in an unusually blunt and frank assessment of America’s terrorism threat level.

“Summertime seems to be appealing to them,” he said of al-Qaida. “We do worry that they are rebuilding their activities.”

Still, Chertoff said there are not enough indications of an imminent plot to raise the current threat levels nationwide. And he indicated that his remarks were based on “a gut feeling” formed by past seasonal patterns of terrorist attacks, recent al-Qaida statements, and intelligence he did not disclose.

There is an assessment “not of a specific threat, but of increased vulnerability,” he added.

There have been reports already that suggest intelligence warnings at a similar level to the summer before Sept. 11, 2001, and that al-Qaida may be mobilizing.

In recent days, ABC News reported that a secret law enforcement report prepared for Homeland Security warns that al-Qaida is preparing a “spectacular” summer attack. On Tuesday, ABC News also reported that “new intelligence suggests a small al-Qaida cell is on its way to the United States, or may already be here.”

Chertoff sternly echoed those sentiments at the Tribune.

“We’ve seen a lot more public statements from al-Qaida,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons to speculate about that, but one reason that occurs to me is that they’re feeling more comfortable and raising expectations.

“We could easily be attacked,” Chertoff added. “The intent to attack us remains as strong as it was on Sept. 10, 2001.”

The dire warnings and Chertoff’s comments come as the Bush administration faces political and business opposition over its immigration and border policies that have security implications.

With stiff blowback on those issues, the administration has been unsuccessful in efforts to enact broader security measures – ones opponents fear are too costly, unnecessary and infringe on people’s rights.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Tribune that lasted more than an hour, Chertoff said, too, that the recent failure of Congress to pass an immigration bill has negative repercussions for security and will lead to continued federal crackdowns on illegal immigrants.

Resistance has built as well, he said, from business and travel interests blocking his proposals to tighten security at the borders – especially at the crossings with Canada.

In the end, Chertoff argued, Americans must soon decide between enduring greater inconvenience and costs or allowing terrorists easier access to the borders. He warned against increasing resistance to security measures based on comfort and self-centered motives.

“If you get to complacency then I guarantee you we will lose the race with the terrorists,” he said.

A recent terrorism plot in London and Scotland has America’s defense system on alert, Chertoff said. He urged Americans to be attentive if something appears suspicious.

“If you look at that picture, you see an enemy that is improving itself just as we’re improving ourselves,” he said. “They can’t afford to remain static just as we can’t afford to remain static.”

Over the next 18 months, as the Bush administration draws to a close, Chertoff said he plans to put security tradeoff options before the American public.

“The public has to make the choices,” he said.

If border crossings are not tightened with stricter document regulation because of economic opposition from business interests, then Chertoff predicts possible dire consequences.

“What do you think is going to happen to your business when a guy comes across the border with a phony document and blows up a target in Buffalo or Detroit?” he asked. “Do you think the American public is then going to allow the border to remain open?”

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