Washington Stresses Seriousness Of Terrorist Threat

Nineteen American diplomatic missions in the Middle East and North Africa will remain closed all week. That after U.S. intelligence picked up a threat of terrorist attacks by al Qaida and its affiliates. Over the weekend, the State Department issued a travel alert to Americans warning of planned attacks.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Nineteen American diplomatic missions in the Middle East and North Africa are still closed this morning and will remain closed all week. That after U.S. intelligence picked up a threat of terrorist attacks by al-Qaida and its affiliates. Over the weekend, the State Department issued a travel alert to Americans warning of planned attacks. News of the renewed terrorist threats created a somewhat sober mood in the Capitol and led to high-level meetings at the White House. Both administration officials and members of congressional committees, dealing with security issues, have stressed the seriousness of these warnings.

And as we do on most Mondays, we turn now to Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So these warnings about possible terrorist attacks come as Congress is embroiled in heated debate over the National Security Agency's intelligence gathering techniques. In fact, the House just last week voted narrowly against reigning in the NSA.

ROBERTS: Right, it was only 12 votes that kept a proposal to restrict NSA activities from passing, and it was sponsored by a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat - had support from both parties. But yesterday Senator Saxby Chambliss - the highest-ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee - said it is exactly the kinds of intelligence gathering that many in the House objected to that revealed the threat that he calls, quote, "the most serious he's seen in years."

Here's Senator Chambliss speaking about those NSA programs on NBC.

SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS REPUBLICAN, GEORGIA: They are what lead us to have the - or allow us to have the ability to gather this chatter that I referred to. If we did not have these programs, then we simply wouldn't be able to listen in on the bad guys.

ROBERTS: And to answer preemptively those who might say the administration is exaggerating the threat in order to protect the NSA surveillance programs, the intelligence community points out that other Western countries are also closing embassies because of that so-called chatter they're hearing.

MONTAGNE: What do you think this adds up to? Is Congress now likely to drop its opposition to these programs?

ROBERTS: If I had to guess, I'd say the answer is yes. This all takes place, Renee, in a post-Benghazi world, and as New York Republican Peter King said yesterday, you can't both criticize the administration for not being cautious enough in Libya, and being too cautious in the face of these threats. And if in fact the information on these threats has come from the intelligence garnered by the NSA, nobody is really likely to try to dismantle it; though some of the more adamant voices on the subject are still being quite adamant.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, is it your sense that these newfound or this seriousness seen over the weekend will carry over to meetings that members of Congress have back in their districts?

ROBERTS: Well, they've just left for a five-week recess. And these home visits sometimes really do produce grassroots activism or just conversations that members bring back to the Capitol. But this year both conservative and liberal groups are planning to seed these town hall meetings. The conservatives want to say that when they come back that members will not vote to keep the government going, unless they take the money away from ObamaCare. Liberals want to make sure there's a path to citizenship for immigrants and they want to press for gun control.

And so these town hall meetings are likely to be much more orchestrated than they sometimes are. And they are likely to be very raucous and very rowdy, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Thank you as always. Political commentator Cokie Roberts.

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