WASHINGTON, Jan. 5 (UPI) -- Lawmakers warned that even with the holiday season safely over, Americans are still at risk from al-Qaida, which "remains as dangerous as it was before Sept. 11."
The warnings came as the Arabic TV news network al-Jazeera broadcast a recently recorded audio tape, apparently of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Analysts said the tape might presage new attacks by the terrorist network.
"Al-Qaida remains as dangerous as it was before Sept. 11," the senior democrat on the house intelligence committee, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., told CNN Sunday. "It is a horizontal -- meaning it doesn't need command just from the top -- organization, and it has cells all over the world."
"That worries me very much," Harman concluded.
Just before Christmas, the administration raised the nation's color-coded alert level from yellow or "elevated," to orange, or "high." Officials said they had intelligence that al-Qaida planned a large-scale attack against the United States over the holiday season, perhaps using hijacked airliners.
Rep. Christopher Cox, R.-Calif., told CNN that, although al-Qaida was still very much able to function, "a great deal has been accomplished" since Sept. 11 in terms of making the country safer.
But Cox, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, acknowledged that America was a "soft target," and it would never be possible to achieve total security.
"We have a big, open society," he said. "Every shopping mall, every office building -- there is no end to it ... we can't harden every soft target in America."
Homeland security experts have long argued that -- with the enormous proliferation of targets and the unsustainable expense of protecting even a proportion of them -- the priority should be a "threat-vulnerability matrix" in which intelligence about terrorists' plans would be cross-indexed with a comprehensive database of possible targets to produce a "to do" list for security measures.
Harman called the absence of such an assessment, more than two years after 9/11, a "big gap" in the nation's defenses against terrorism.
Cox -- while acknowledging that that the job was "an ongoing work ... an enormous undertaking" -- said that the White House had in December issued a presidential directive instructing officials to prepare "a comprehensive, integrated national plan" by the end of 2004.
Democrats at the time criticized the executive order as too little, too late.
"This directive gives the Department another year to do a job we need completed today," said Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee.
"Our enemies will not wait and neither can we."
"This is just a plan for a plan," added a Democratic congressional aide, asking not to be identified. The aide pointed to a series of homeland security officials who testified last year before Congress that threat-vulnerability assessment was an ongoing -- and, in view of the constantly changing threat situation, potentially never ending -- task.
The assessment is "really a continuous work in process," Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Infrastructure Protection Robert Liscouski told a congressional panel last year. "I would be surprised, frankly, if we had that done in the next five years."
Underlining the urgency of the task, al-Jazeera broadcast an audiotape Sunday, apparently from bin Laden.
The voice on the tape made an elliptical reference to the capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in mid-December and mentioned in straightforward terms about other recent events.
"He begins by saying 'I am Osama bin Laden'," al-Qaida analyst Peter Bergen told United Press International. "With that and all these time-specific references, there's no doubt in my mind that this is a self conscious effort at proving he's alive."
An official said U.S. intelligence agencies would study the recording to see if it really was bin Laden.
If it was, said private sector terror analyst Ben Venzke, it might well presage new attacks by al-Qaida.
In an e-mail alert, Venzke wrote that every major al-Qaida attack during the last two years was "preceded by the release of an Osama bin Laden audio tape with the exception of the attack on the French oil tanker Limburg. In the case of the Limburg attack, the tape was released the following day."
Harman said another weakness in the nation's security revealed by the holiday alert was the absence of a single, integrated and accurate "watch list" of terrorism suspects.
"The information ... that we gave to the French about people who might be on the passenger manifests for the planes that we've stopped from coming here, was inaccurate," she said, referring to reports that among the "terror suspects" identified from the watch lists were a young child, a Welsh insurance agent and an elderly Chinese woman.
Both lawmakers agreed that the national color-coded threat level system needed reform.
Cox said it was important that threat warnings did not "play into the terrorists' hands ... by having a one-size-fits-all message that's not only nonspecific as to region and infrastructure sector but also doesn't communicate better, more intensely, with people who could use the information, the first responders, as against the global news conference."
On the question of whether al-Qaida remained as dangerous as it was before Sept. 11, some analysts suggested that what had changed was the level of intelligence about its intentions that the United States has access to.
"It's like dyslexia," Bergen told UPI, "the level of reporting of dyslexia has risen enormously in the last 20 years. But, is there more of it? Or are we just more aware of it.
"Similarly, with al-Qaida, the fact that we are more aware of the threat now may just be a reflection of our greater knowledge about the organization."