Homeland security chief takes heat from Senators

Senate Democrats and Republicans questioned the administration's handling of recent terrorist threats at meetings Tuesday with Office of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.

"There's a lot of noise, and not a lot of clarity," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., characterizing the administration's response.

Dodd cited a need for more coordination in the administration's communications strategy. "There's a sense that on the domestic front, unlike the international front, that there's right-hand/left-hand problems," he said.

Ridge, who met separately with Senate Democrats and Republicans Tuesday, is slated to return to Capitol Hill to address the House Republican Conference today. A former Republican House member from Pennsylvania, Ridge is also planning to visit the regular closed meeting of the House Democratic Caucus.

Several Democrats asked Ridge about Attorney General John Ashcroft's general warning this week of that terrorists are planning another attack. Dodd said Ridge left the meeting "with a stronger sense that people are disappointed about how this is being managed."

But Dodd and other Democrats say they are sympathetic to the challenges that Ridge faces in administering a new office without clear lines of authority.

"He's got 12 people with him ... to coordinate the activities of agencies that employ thousands," Dodd said. Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said, "The administration is in an understandable dilemma."

The GOP meeting apparently was more upbeat. "There was no hostility or complaint," said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, who said Ridge "is still feeling his way." Sources explained that if the administration had failed to issue the warning, it could have been even more harmful if an attack occurred.

A Senate aide said Intelligence Committee ranking member Richard Shelby, R-Ala., raised concerns about the recent terrorist warning at the GOP meeting. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said after the meeting: "If you raise these issues too often and it doesn't happen, then people may learn to disregard the concern." But Crapo said there was no reason for the moment to think about reconfiguring Ridge's office.

Ridge said, "Both Republicans and Democrats want the homeland security focus to be very clear, to be very singular."

Ridge defended the administration's decision to issue the terrorism warning. "We need to be alert," he said. "This country has to be on guard."

Mark Wegner contributed to this report.