U.S. steps up warnings on terror threat

Arms of mass destruction `inevitably' will be used

Rumsfeld sounds new alarm

Daschle calls for probe of U.S. acts before Sept. 11

May 22, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In still another blunt warning from the Bush administration, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that terrorists "inevitably" will obtain chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and try to use them against Americans.

"We have to recognize that terrorist networks have relationships with terrorist states that have weapons of mass destruction and that they inevitably are going to get their hands on them, and they would not hesitate one minute in using them," Rumsfeld told a congressional panel.

Rumsfeld became the third senior Bush administration official in three days to sound a variation on the terrorist threat. His warning came as authorities in New York tightened security based on uncorroborated information from detainees that landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty might be attacked.

The defense secretary's remarks came on the third day of a concerted Bush administration effort to remind the nation that it is still at war against an elusive and fearsome enemy. The warnings followed what a White House official called a rise in the "pitch and volume" of terrorist threats picked up by intelligence agencies.

But the warnings also came amid continuing questions and criticism on Capitol Hill over how those agencies and perhaps the White House failed to pull together various vague warnings and bits of information about an impending terror attack before Sept. 11.

Last week, the White House acknowledged that President Bush was told in general terms prior to the attack that al-Qaida terrorists might hijack commercial airliners.

To help stem the criticism, the Bush administration yesterday showed members of the Senate Judiciary Committee portions of a July memo from an FBI agent in Phoenix who issued a pre-Sept. 11 warning about Arabs attending U.S. flight schools, according to the Associated Press. The agent, Kenneth Williams, spoke to lawmakers in a closed session.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle called yesterday for an independent commission to investigate government action before Sept. 11. The South Dakota Democrat said that such a panel is needed for "a greater degree of public scrutiny, of public involvement, of public understanding."

A raft of warnings

For months, Bush and other administration officials have warned of the dangers posed by nations that possess chemical and biological weapons, seek to acquire nuclear arms, and harbor and support terrorists.

But Rumsfeld's comments yesterday may have marked the first time that any senior official said it was a virtual certainty that terrorists would get hold of such dangerous weapons.

On Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney said on network talk shows that "the prospects of a future attack against the United States are almost certain," adding that it is "not a matter of if, but when."

And on Monday, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said a suicide attack in the United States similar to those endured by Israelis is "inevitable."

Yesterday, Bush, in an interview with Italy's RAI television, reinforced the words of his senior aides, saying: "Al-Qaida still exists, they still hate America and any other country which loves freedom, and they want to hurt us. They're nothing but a bunch of cold-blooded killers."

Rumsfeld, testifying before a Senate appropriations panel, said nations that support terrorism - he mentioned Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and North Korea by name - are testing chemical and biological agents and putting them into weapons while at the same time "aggressively trying to get nuclear weapons."

Report on terror

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell issued his own, somewhat less vivid warning as he released the State Department's annual report on terrorism that designates those nations that support terrorist activities, a list that included Sudan and Cuba in addition to those named by Rumsfeld.

"The advance of technology and globalization extend terrorism's deadly reach by making it easier for terrorists to move about, form networks and conspire with or without state sponsors," Powell said. "Terrorists are trying every way they can to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, whether radiological, chemical, biological or nuclear."

Bush has pointed to the danger of a transfer of weapons of mass destruction to terrorists as a reason he wants to topple President Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq.

The State Department report said terrorists increasingly may try to use these weapons as a way to "rival the events of last Sept. 11," when al-Qaida members hijacked four aircraft and crashed two of them into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon in the world's deadliest terror attack.

A `religious duty'

The report said al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden has described the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction as a "religious duty." A small but growing number of terrorist groups have shown the same desire, according to the report.

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