WASHINGTON - President Bush has secretly authorized increased financial aid to a diverse array of groups fighting the Taliban so that they can buy Russian military equipment to intensify their fight against that regime, administration officials said yesterday.
The president approved the stepped-up assistance last week, but officials declined to specify how much money was involved
Separately, Bush has authorized $100 million in new relief aid to Afghan refugees, as part of an effort to quell resentment in Pakistan as thousands pour over the border each day.
Administration officials are also actively considering a plan to air-drop food into Afghanistan to forestall starvation as winter approaches, though military planners are hesitating because they have not yet figured out a way to ensure that the food does not fall into the Taliban's hands.
The opposition Northern Alliance. or United Front, which controls less than 10 percent of Afghanistan, has been asking for direct U.S. military aid since at least 1997 and has been receiving a small amount of nonweapons assistance such as communications equipment since 1998.
A U.S. official who confirmed the expanded aid said it did not make sense to give the rebels U.S. weapons because the guerrillas are equipped and trained almost exclusively with military equipment from the former Soviet Union.
In addition to the increased financial aid, Bush has authorized the CIA and other agencies to support a broad-based political opposition to the Taliban to be focused on former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah, 86, who has been living in exile in Rome.
Meanwhile, Bush administration officials warned yesterday that the United States remains at substantial risk of terrorist assault, including attacks that might involve chemical, biological and, soon, nuclear weapons.
But administration officials signaled that Bush is likely to reopen Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport - partly as a message to the world that Americans don't intend to surrender their freedom or alter their way of life.
The officials' comments occurred as the president and Congress are trying to determine how the nation's legal and security systems should be changed to protect against attacks such as those three weeks ago on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon while at the same time safeguarding civil liberties.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who is trying to win congressional approval for legislation giving authorities greater power to investigate terrorists and detain immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally, warned that the threat of attack is likely to grow when the United States strikes back.
"We think that there is a very serious threat of additional problems now. And, frankly, as the United States responds, that threat may escalate," Ashcroft said yesterday on the CBS program, Face the Nation.
The number of people arrested or detained in the sweeping investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks has grown to about 500, the attorney general said.
"It's very unlikely that all of those associated with the attacks are now detained or have been detected," he added. "That's why we need the kind of robust surveillance capacity that's provided for in the legislation."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking on NBC's Meet the Press, said the nation remains vulnerable to terrorists, "because we don't live in a fortress. We don't spend all of our time in fear of these things.
"They can use our way of life and our own technologies to attack us," Rumsfeld said. "That means we have to have a heightened sense of awareness and address those types of attacks."
He warned that terrorists may soon have weapons of mass destruction, if they don't have them already.
"There's never really been worldwide terrorism at a time when the weapons have been as powerful as they are today, with chemical and biological and nuclear weapons spreading to countries that harbor terrorists," Rumsfeld said. "One has to recognize the possibility, the probability, that at some point these terrorist-sponsoring nations will provide these kinds of capabilities to terrorist networks."
Even as they alerted Americans to potential dangers, Bush administration officials sought to assure people that they can safely go about their daily lives.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said the United States is prepared to respond to any kind of biological attack with 50 tons of medical supplies - including vaccines, antibiotics, gas masks and ventilators - that are kept at eight locations across the country and can be rushed to an affected site within hours.
"We've got to make sure that people understand that they're safe," Thompson said during an interview on the CBS program 60 Minutes.
Meanwhile, Rumsfeld and the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card, signaled that the president is likely to reopen Reagan National, though probably with the tightest security precautions of any airport in the country.