July 11, 2007 -- Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has downplayed comments he made Tuesday on the U.S. terror situation. "We don't have specific intelligence about an attack, that is, a particular attack against the homeland, that is imminent or scheduled for the summer," he told ABC News.
Chertoff noted, "It's important as we go into the summer season, which is typically a time people like to relax, to remind people that this threat is very alive, and the enemy is continuing to try to improve itself and carry out its attacks."
In a Tuesday meeting with the Chicago Tribune's editorial board, Chertoff said he believes "we are entering a period this summer of increased risk."
But his explanation for that assessment — "a gut feeling" based on past terrorist patterns — prompted a flurry of questions about what the secretary might know.
Chertoff indicated to the Tribune that the assessment is "not of a specific threat, but of increased vulnerability," but the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee sent Chertoff a letter today, asking him to "clarify your comments by providing concrete direction" to Congress and law enforcement agencies.
"What color code in the Homeland Security advisory system is associated with a 'gut feeling?'" asked Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.
"What sectors should be on alert as a result of your 'gut feeling'? What cities should be asking their law enforcement to work double shifts because of your 'gut feeling,'" Thompson asked.
"Are the American people supposed to purchase duct tape and plastic sheeting because of your 'gut feeling?'"
After authorities in the U.K. thwarted terror plots in London and Glasgow last week, Chertoff said he had seen "no specific, credible information suggesting that this incident is connected to a threat to the homeland." He also said there were no plans to change the U.S. terror threat level, which currently stands at yellow, or elevated.
But ABC News has reported that an increased number of law enforcement and intelligence officials are concerned that al Qaeda or other extremist groups are ramping up efforts to carry out attacks on targets in Europe, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Intelligence officials say some of those groups have been at training camps in remote tribal area locations of Pakistan — the same regions that might be home to senior al Qaeda leaders in hiding.
Sources have also told ABC News that recent intelligence points to a pattern of large groups of Islamic radicals flowing into terrorist camps in Pakistan for training, then leaving for unknown destination countries.
That training push, government officials believe, is hard evidence that al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on targets around the globe. The problem, they say, is that details on the when, where and how of the attacks are sketchy.
But Chertoff said his department is maintaining focus.
"We respond promptly to any information, any intelligence," Chertoff told ABC News. "If we have something specific to tell the public or to communicate to local officials, we do it promptly and immediately."
"But as it stands now, we're looking at a general situation, and we don't have specific threat information," Chertoff added. "But that doesn't mean that we're not going to watch it and that tomorrow, or next week, or in two weeks, something new might not arise."