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US security chief cites lull in terror threat 'chatter'

WASHINGTON -- US intelligence monitors are picking up less terror-threat talk than a year ago, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said yesterday, but he warned that terrorists could be lying low before striking again.

''There certainly is a diminution, reduction in the amount of intelligence, and the decibel level is lower," Ridge said, comparing information picked up over the past several months with a similar period a year ago. He offered no single explanation for the drop, saying it could be stepped-up efforts to boost security, increase military action, and disrupt terrorist leaders and their finances, or just the ''hardening of America."

''Could be any of those and none of those," he said. ''I suspect it's probably all of them." He called the terrorists ''long-range planners" who could be biding time before another attack.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported today that an investigation by the CIA inspector general found that high-ranking agency officials, including former director George Tenet and James L. Pavitt, the former deputy director of operations, should be held responsible for not marshaling adequate resources to deal with terrorism before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Times, citing current and former intelligence officials, said the findings of the report are classified and present a dilemma for the Bush administration, which awarded Tenet the Medal of Freedom last month.

Ridge plans to leave office Feb. 1, although the White House has not chosen his successor. As for his replacement, Ridge said only that he discussed several candidates with the White House. Former New York police chief Bernard Kerik withdrew last month because of an immigration problem with a housekeeper-nanny.

Ridge said Capitol Hill turf battles among various committees and legislators could prevent a central Homeland Security oversight process for years.

He also said Yusuf Islam, once a popular singer known as Cat Stevens, is barred from entering the country. The singer was removed from a London-to-Washington flight in September because of suspected links to terrorists, a contention he has strongly denied.

''The reasons we rejected him several months ago still exist in my mind," Ridge said.

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