The Obama administration Wednesday came under fire for its decision to leave the national threat level unchanged after the killing of Osama bin Laden, despite warnings that al Qaeda was likely to retaliate.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate panel that the administration had not raised the alert because there was no credible information pointing to a specific threat.
Security has been increased at airports, seaports and border crossings while U.S. officials review intelligence reports on al Qaeda suspects and other militants who could already be inside the United States, she said.
The U.S. government scrapped its much-ridiculed color-coded warnings last month, replacing it with a new system that provides specific information about potential threats rather than one that simply reflects the general threat status.
"We want to be careful here. We don't want to say because we suspect, and reasonably so, that at some point there may be retaliation, that we go ahead and put the nation into an alert status without more information than we currently have," Napolitano told the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
But her explanation did not rest well with Republican lawmakers.
"From my perspective, it just still seems prudent to temporarily, at least, elevate the threat level," said Senator Susan Collins, the committee's senior Republican.
Republican Senator Ron Johnson said the purpose of an advisory was to "signal to the American public that something has changed."
"The purpose of the advisory, in my view, is to communicate facts and information so people know what to do," Napolitano shot back.
U.S. officials, including CIA director Leon Panetta, have warned that al Qaeda may try to retaliate for the U.S. raid that killed the militant network's top leader on Monday at his compound in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad.
The death of the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington has boosted public approval of President Barack Obama, just as the 2012 presidential campaign gets under way.
Napolitano said a panel of officials from several intelligence agencies was examining material from the bin Laden compound and advising her daily on the level of danger.
Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, an independent who often sides with Democrats, defended the administration's approach: "I think the system is working as we want it to."
(Editing by Paul Simao)
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