At a news conference yesterday, Ashcroft said his Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Department of Homeland Security have gathered what he called "credible intelligence" that Al-Qaeda plans at least one major attack in the United States over the next few months.
As in the past, Ashcroft said, the intelligence is not specific enough to determine where or when such an attack may occur, or how it may be conducted. But he said Al-Qaeda seems to be preparing to carry them out.
"Just after New Year's, Al-Qaeda announced openly that preparations for an attack on the United States were 70 percent complete. After the 11 March attack in Madrid, Spain, an Al-Qaeda spokesman announced that 90 percent of the arrangements for an attack in the United States were complete," Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft noted that there are several important events in the next four months that could be targets. They include the dedication on 29 May of a new World War II Memorial in Washington, the summit next month of the Group of Eight leading economic powers in the state of Georgia, and the national conventions of the two major U.S. political parties in New York and Boston.
In fact, Ashcroft said Al-Qaeda may be trying to influence the outcome of the November presidential election. He noted that the 11 March train bombings in Madrid influenced national elections in Spain, which were held just three days later.
Joining Ashcroft at the news conference was FBI Director Robert Mueller, who displayed photographs of seven people -- six men and one woman. He described them as Al-Qaeda operatives, some of whom may already be in the United States.
Ashcroft said the suspects should be considered armed and dangerous. "Ideal Al-Qaeda operatives may now be in their late 20s or early 30s and may travel with a family to lower their profile," he said. "Our intelligence confirms [that] Al-Qaeda is seeking recruits who can portray themselves as Europeans."
But Ashcroft said the intelligence he has received contains no details of the suspects' plans.
Despite the warnings, the Homeland Security Department did not raise the nation's terrorism alert, which now stands at "elevated." The department has established five threat levels, each represented by a color. The highest level, or red, is "severe"; beneath that are "high," or orange; "elevated," or yellow; "guarded," or blue; and "low," or green.
One reporter asked Ashcroft how he would respond to skeptics who might not take warnings of impending attacks seriously, especially if the official threat level is not raised. The attorney general said he believes the public needs a reminder to be wary this summer, and that Americans should know that law enforcement officials are renewing their efforts to protect the public.
During a separate appearance yesterday, Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security, said the new intelligence does not necessarily mean there is a need for a heightened threat alert. "Every day we make America more secure, and there will [be] certain events where you'll see additional security," he said. "But right now, there is no need to put the entire country on a national alert."
Some critics of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush say the timing of yesterday's announcement seemed to be an effort to eclipse the news coverage of the continued insurgency in Iraq and the growing scandal about U.S. military personnel abusing prisoners.
Asked about that, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the administration believes in publicly sharing as much information as it has without compromising security. "We have to work under the assumption that there are terrorists here, and the intelligence reporting we have seen from time to time indicates that there may well be people in place ready to carry out attacks," he said.