WASHINGTON - The Bush administration said on Wednesday that it had credible intelligence suggesting that Al Qaeda is planning to attack the United States in the next several months, a period in which events like an international summit meeting and the two political conventions could offer tempting targets.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said at a news conference that intelligence reports and public statements by people associated with Al Qaeda suggested that the terrorist group was "almost ready to attack the United States" and harbored a "specific intention to hit the United States hard."
But some intelligence officials, terrorism experts - and to some extent even Mr. Ashcroft's own F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III - offered a more tempered assessment, saying, "For the next few weeks we have reason to believe there is a heightened threat to the U.S. interests around the world.'' And some opponents of President Bush, including police and firefighter union leaders aligned with Senator John Kerry, the expected Democratic presidential candidate, said the timing of the announcement appeared intended in part to distract attention from Mr. Bush's sagging poll numbers and problems in Iraq.
The administration did not raise the terrorist threat advisory from its current level of elevated, or yellow, and the White House said Mr. Bush would not alter his schedule because of security concerns.
"There's no real new intelligence, and a lot of this has been out there already," said one administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "There really is no significant change that would require us to change the alert level of the country."
Mr. Ashcroft said the government did not have any information about where the terrorists might strike, and he said there was "extraordinary" security being put in place for events like a summit meeting of international leaders next month in Savannah, Ga., the Democratic convention in Boston in late July and the Republican convention in New York in late August and early September.
Mr. Ashcroft called for greater public vigilance, especially in looking out for seven people sought by the F.B.I. who are suspected of being Qaeda members or sympathizers.
The names of six of the seven were publicly circulated by the authorities months ago, and officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said that they had no reason to believe any of the seven suspects were in the United States.
Asked about the timing of his new warnings about the suspects, Mr. Ashcroft said, "We believe the public, like all of us, needs a reminder."
Some intelligence officials said they were uncertain that the link between the fresh intelligence and the likelihood of another attack was as apparent as Mr. Ashcroft made it out to be. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security said just a day before Mr. Ashcroft's announcement that they had no new intelligence pointing to the threat of an attack.
Senator Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who is a member of the intelligence committee, said in an interview that the committee had received no word of any new information of the type Mr. Ashcroft described. Mr. Durbin said that if there were credible new information about a possible strike, he believed the intelligence committee should have been told about it.
Other officials said they supported Mr. Ashcroft's warnings.
"I think he was right on the mark in terms of what Al Qaeda's intent is," said one counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The White House came under criticism this year for not acting more aggressively in August 2001 when Mr. Bush was informed that Al Qaeda was planning to attack the United States or its interests abroad. In issuing a high-profile warning this time, the administration appeared intent on insulating itself from any perception that it was not responding vigorously enough.
But the announcement also came after weeks in which Mr. Bush's political standing has been battered by events in Iraq and as his re-election campaign is seeking to portray Mr. Kerry as opposed to the USA Patriot Act, the law giving the government broad powers to combat terrorism.
Harold Schaitberger, head of the International Association of Fire Fighters, told reporters in a conference call organized by Mr. Kerry's campaign that he found the timing of the announcement to be "politically convenient at best" because it came after "we see the president's approval ratings plummet."
Mr. Kerry issued a statement in which he said he knew Americans had been "struck by the seriousness and concern coming from this administration," but went on to attack the administration for not doing more to bolster domestic security.
Mr. Bush's campaign responded by saying that Mr. Kerry "has played politics with homeland security throughout this campaign."
Of the seven people Mr. Ashcroft asked the public and law enforcement agencies to watch out for, the only one whose name had not been previously released was Adam Yahiye Gadahn, 25, who officials said is an American citizen from California.
Mr. Gadahn converted to Islam and is believed to have attended Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan several years ago, officials said. He is thought to have done translation work for Al Qaeda and was associated with Abu Zubayda, a senior Qaeda associate now imprisoned by the United States, they said.
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