RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Intelligence officials meet at the White House today to discuss the nation's readiness for possible terrorist strikes against the U.S. On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff cause a stir when he said he had a, quote, "gut feeling" that the nation faces an increased risk of attack this summer. He cited increase activity by al-Qaida overseas.

Democrats have complained about the lack of details. As NPR's Pam Fessler reports, the controversy points again to the difficulty the government has trying to warn the public about a non-specific threat.

PAM FESSLER: Secretary Chertoff made his remarks in an hour-long interview with the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune. The gut feeling part came at the end of an answer in which he talked about signs he's been noting for weeks now - the bombing attempts in Great Britain, last summer's thwarted aviation attacks and indications that al-Qaida is regrouping.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (U.S. Department of Homeland Security): All these things give me a kind of gut feeling that we are in a period of - not that I have a specific threat, you know, that I have in mind right now, but then we are entering a period of increased vulnerability.

To me, the phrase gut feeling, which is perhaps a little more colloquial way of saying informed judgment or informed conclusion.

FESSLER: That was Chertoff yesterday, elaborating in an interview with NPR.

Mr. CHERTOFF: I am worried about increased capabilities, the fact that time has passed where they tried and have not succeeded in attacking us. And it causes me to believe we ought to be even more vigilant this summer, perhaps, than we would have been six months ago.

FESSLER: And indeed, intelligence officials have been saying for months that they're seeing a resurgent, more active al-Qaida, especially in Pakistan. But the lack of details in Chertoff's warnings has caused some consternation, especially among Democrats.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson wrote a letter to Chertoff, noting that the government already has an official warning system - the color-coded alerts. What color code in the Homeland Security advisory system is associated with a gut feeling? - he wrote. Michael Greenberger, a director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security, says he was also disturbed by Chertoff's remarks.

Professor MICHAEL GREENBERGER (Director, Center for Health and Homeland Security, University of Maryland): The American people are well aware there is a threat, and I don't see this casual comment is advancing the ball very much. And I find it troubling in terms of the overt lack of preparedness on the part of the administration.

FESSLER: Greenberger noted recent reports of many top jobs at the Homeland Security Department remained unfilled. He also thinks there's confusion over the color-coded alert system, in part because many people believed it was used politically in the early days after 9/11.

Prof. GREENBERGER: And even though it's still in existence, it's unusable because no one takes it seriously. And I worry that the secretary's comment is just going to present itself as an amendment to our color-coded system.

FESSLER: But George Foresman, who until recently was in-charge of preparedness at Homeland Security, says Chertoff is dealing with a very inexact science, trying to keep people from becoming too complacent at a time when officials know al-Qaida would like to attack.

Mr. GEORGE FORESMAN (Undersecretary for Preparedness, U.S. Department of Homeland Security): And I think the challenge that he runs into is how do you find the right balance with maintaining a level of vigilance, while also making sure that people aren't running around fearful each and every day?

FESSLER: He says a color-coded alert system is used to address more identifiable threats, which call for more specific responses - things such as banning liquids from airplanes when a plot to use liquid explosives is uncovered. He says it's the vague threats that are more troublesome, especially when it comes to warning the public.

Mr. FORESMAN: If something were to happen next week or months from now or two months from now, are those same folks who are raising these issues now, would they be the ones to criticize and say hey, why didn't you do anything about it?

FESSLER: And the issue is unlikely to go away. Intelligence analysts are nearing completion on a new report assessing the overall threat to the United States.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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