National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said at a White House briefing that the FBI's warnings this week are "really are a summary of intelligence, not a new warning. This is a summary of intelligence as we know it."
Her statement came as the Bush administration rushed to offset the FBI's startling language and refute charges by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that the war on terror was faltering and an attack on Iraq would distract the nation from the more pressing danger posed by al Qaida.
Deputy Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters that although the terrorism risk level remained unchanged, the FBI report showed, "we are taking additional precautions to meet the threat." He said the intelligence behind the reports was unspecific and did not lend itself to clear warnings.
He said that the bureau's warning, sent to local law enforcement agencies Thursday and then published Friday on the National Infrastructure Protection Center's Web site, had been reviewed by the White House and other agencies, before it was issued.
But the bureau warning came in a week in which world attention turned once again to al Qaida, the shadowy terror organization blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
An audio recording -- apparently the voice of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden -- was broadcast by the Arab language Al Jazeera news network earlier this week. Although U.S. intelligence agencies have not completed a final analysis of the tape, the recording is the first piece of evidence that bin Laden survived the U.S.-led assault on his Afghan sanctuary last year.
Following the broadcast, United Press International reported unnamed senior government officials as saying that "chatter" -- intercepted communications between al Qaida operatives -- was at its highest level.
Two other warnings preceded Thursday's alert.
On Wednesday, FBI told officials in Houston, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington to be alert for threats against hospitals. And the State Department warned Americans abroad, particularly in Pakistan, that the execution Thursday night of a Pakistan citizen for a shooting rampage at CIA's headquarters 1993 might be avenged with attacks.
By Friday, the FBI itself was throwing cold water on its own alert. A spokesman said that "nothing (in the warning) is corroborated, its done out of an abundance of caution."
Rice said that the Bush administration issued these warnings -- which have often in the past been criticized as alarmist and unspecific -- because "it is important that Americans know when this sort of thing comes to the attention of the administration."
Without mentioning Daschle's name, Rice refuted his charge about the progress of the war on terror, saying the United States had eliminated several key al Qaida leaders, eradicated training camps in Afghanistan, destroyed terror command and control and hardened up many of its own defenses. Rice said the 60 nation terror war coalition shared intelligence and that movement for al Qaida was much more difficult.
(With reporting by Michael Kirkland, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent)