Washington Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday he was almost certain that terrorists would attack the United States again. "It's not a matter of if, but when," he said.
Cheney also acknowledged past failures in responding to signs of terrorism, but said he didn't know if the Sept. 11 attacks could have been prevented "even if we had all those pieces together."
The vice president, in two talk show appearances, confirmed that U.S. intelligence was picking up hints that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network may be planning an attack. The information is vague but should be taken seriously, he said.
"I think that the prospects of a future attack on the U.S. are almost a certainty," Cheney said on "Fox News Sunday." "It could happen tomorrow, it could happen next week, it could happen next year, but they will keep trying. And we have to be prepared."
Cheney said the United States has had success in disrupting the al-Qaida network, but it was impossible to prepare a perfect defense.
"You try to read the tea leaves. We look for pieces of information and evidence, but you never get the complete picture," Cheney said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Bob Graham, said the latest intelligence was similar to what has been seen during the past year.
"It was nonspecific, didn't lead you to a particular course of action ... other than a general increase in our level of sensitivity to possible terrorist activities," Graham, D-Fla., said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
President Bush, returning Sunday to the White House from Camp David, did not respond to a question about whether Americans should be on a higher state of alert.
White House under scrutiny
Cheney's appearances followed disclosures that Bush had been told in an Aug. 6 intelligence briefing that al-Qaida might attempt a hijacking aimed at Americans. The administration has said the information was not specific enough for it to take concrete action an explanation similar to Cheney's about the difficulty of responding to the latest intelligence reports.
Cheney said he reviewed the Aug. 6 memo and saw nothing that should have prompted immediate action. He said terrorists have been hijacking planes for 30 years and that the warning was based on old intelligence.
"You're going to shut down the nation's aviation system based on that report? You wouldn't," he said.
Democrats and some Republicans have cited the Aug. 6 briefing as one of several warning signs that, together, might have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks. Among the others were a July memo by an FBI agent in Phoenix warning of a large number of Arabs training in U.S. flight schools, and the arrest in August of Zacarias Moussaoui while training at a Minnesota flight school. He has now been charged as a conspirator in the attacks.
Lack of coordination
"There's no question that there were failures," Cheney said. He cited a lack of coordination between domestic law enforcement and U.S. intelligence agencies, and problems in analyzing intelligence data. Many of those problems are being addressed, he said.
"But I can't say at this point that even if we had all those pieces together that it would have led to the conclusion that they were going to hit the Trade Center, the Pentagon, et cetera," he said.
Another problem in pre-Sept. 11 counterterrorism efforts was noted Sunday: From the summer of 2000 and into 2001, the FBI was forced to shut down 10 to 20 wiretaps of al-Qaida-related suspects connected to the investigation of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Newsweek reported, citing unnamed sources.
The action came after U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth complained to Attorney General John Ashcroft that an FBI official had misrepresented petitions for taps on terror suspects, the magazine said.
Call for investigation
Some lawmakers want an independent commission to investigate intelligence failures related to the attacks. Cheney noted that the administration was cooperating with a joint investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees. He said he opposed an independent inquiry because it would tie up too many officials involved in fighting terrorism and could lead to the release of classified information.
Similarly, he opposes any attempt by Congress to see the Aug. 6 briefing "because it comes from the most sensitive sources and methods that we have as a government. It's the family jewels, from that perspective."
But the Phoenix memo, he said, is "fair game" for the intelligence committees, though he would oppose its release to the public.
Cheney denounced the "feeding frenzy" of criticism that followed disclosures of the Aug. 6 briefing. He said he has "a deep sense of anger that anyone would suggest that the president of the United States had advance knowledge that he failed to act on."
Republicans have accused Democrats of trying to make political gains from the attacks. In particular, they have criticized House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., for his Watergate-style questions asking what the president knew and when did he know it.
On Fox, Gephardt said he asked those questions only in the interest of improving U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.
"I never ever, ever thought that anybody, including the president, did anything up to September 11 other than their best," he said.