CHICAGO — Fearing complacency among the American people over possible terrorist threats, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday that the nation faced a heightened chance of an attack this summer.
"I believe we are entering a period this summer of increased risk," Chertoff told the Chicago Tribune's editorial board in an unusually blunt assessment of America's terrorist threat level.
"Summertime seems to be appealing to them," he said of Al Qaeda. "We do worry that they are rebuilding their activities."
Chertoff said there were not enough indications of an imminent plot to raise the threat levels nationwide. He indicated that his remarks were based on "a gut feeling" formed by previous patterns of terrorist attacks, recent Al Qaeda statements and intelligence he did not disclose.
There is an assessment "not of a specific threat but of increased vulnerability," he said.
There have been reports that suggest intelligence warnings are at a similar level to the summer before Sept. 11, 2001, and that Al Qaeda may be mobilizing.
In recent days, ABC News said a secret law enforcement report warned that Al Qaeda was preparing a "spectacular" summer attack.
On Tuesday, ABC News said "new intelligence suggests a small Al Qaeda cell is on its way to the United States, or may already be here."
ABC said the White House had called an urgent meeting for Thursday to discuss the potential threat.
"We've seen a lot more public statements from Al Qaeda," Chertoff said. "There are a lot of reasons to speculate about that, but one reason that occurs to me is that they're feeling more comfortable and raising expectations.
"We could easily be attacked," Chertoff added. "The intent to attack us remains as strong as it was on Sept. 10, 2001."
The dire warnings and Chertoff's comments come as the Bush administration faces political and business opposition over its immigration and border policies.
With stiff opposition on those issues, the administration has been unsuccessful in efforts to enact broader security measures -- ones that opponents fear are too costly, unnecessary and infringe on people's rights.
In a broad interview with the Tribune that lasted more than an hour, Chertoff said that Congress' recent failure to pass an immigration bill had negative repercussions for domestic security and would lead to continued federal crackdowns on illegal immigrants.
Resistance has built as well, he said, from business and travel interests blocking proposals to tighten security at the borders -- especially at the crossings with Canada.
In the end, Chertoff argued, Americans must decide between enduring greater inconvenience and costs or allowing terrorists easier access to the borders. He warned against increasing resistance to security measures based on comfort and self-centered motives.
A recent terrorism plot in London and Scotland has America's defense system on alert, Chertoff said. He urged Americans to be attentive.
"If you look at that picture, you see an enemy that is improving itself just as we're improving ourselves," he said. "They can't afford to remain static just as we can't afford to remain static."
Over the next 18 months, as the Bush administration draws to a close, Chertoff said he planned to put security options before Americans.
"The public has to make the choices," he said.
Chertoff predicts dire consequences if border crossings are not tightened with stricter document regulations because of opposition from business interests.
"What do you think is going to happen to your business when a guy comes across the border with a phony document and blows up a target in Buffalo or Detroit?" he asked. "Do you think the American public is then going to allow the border to remain open?"
He said there would be security repercussions from Congress' failure to pass immigration reform. Chertoff had hoped that granting a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants would cut away "the tall grass" hiding criminal elements among the undocumented workers.
But now, Chertoff said, his agency must uphold current laws, and that means a further crackdown on workplaces.
"We are going to do more law enforcement actions," he said.
Conceding the raids are "going to be ugly" and tear parents from their children, Chertoff warned that "the consequences are going to be tough from an economic and humanitarian standpoint."