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Ridge downplays reports: "There are no new threats'

With the Senate set to approve the agency he's expected to lead, President Bush's homeland security adviser on Sunday played down as "really nothing new" an alleged al-Qaida threat of attacks in New York and Washington.

Tom Ridge also said he doubted the Bush administration would create an agency separate from the FBI to gather domestic intelligence. Several senators said the White House should not pursue that idea without congressional input.

Ridge declined to discuss whether he wants to become secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. A senior administration official confirmed Sunday that Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor and close friend of Bush, is the president's choice for the job, the Associated Press reported.

Appearing on three Sunday morning talk shows, Ridge tried to minimize the alleged al-Qaida threat.

"We're familiar with that piece of information. There are no new threats. There are the same old conditions," Ridge told Fox News Sunday. "It's just part of the continuing threat environment that we assess. It's really nothing new."

A correspondent for the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera told the Associated Press he received an unsigned, six-page document on Wednesday, a day after the station broadcast an audiotape believed to have been made by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

While the correspondent says he is certain the statement came from al-Qaida's leadership, Ridge said the administration was unsure of its source, but recognizes that the United States is a primary target.

Ridge said a recent visit he made to MI5, the British domestic intelligence agency, was "very revealing," but added that he thought it was unlikely the administration would create something similar. He and several senators noted that FBI Director Robert Mueller is working, under orders from Bush, to reorganize the FBI to improve domestic intelligence gathering.

Ridge said powers given to MI5 would be unacceptable under the Constitution.

"I don't think you're going to see a similar organization be developed in this country," he said on CNN's Late Edition. "That's not to say that not on a regular basis we don't sit down and see how we can improve our intelligence-gathering capacity domestically and how we share it."

Top senators urged caution _ and consultations with Congress.

"A lot of things have been done in the name of national security, particularly in the 20th century, that we've regretted retrospectively," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on CBS' Face the Nation.

"It would have to be something that would have to be sold to a majority of Congress before the first steps are taken," he said.

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was not sure the FBI is up to the job of domestic spying.

If the FBI cannot handle the job, "We're either going to have to create a domestic intelligence service, by standing alone, or we're going to have to put it into Homeland Security," he told CNN's Late Edition.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., the panel's outgoing chairman, agreed. "We ought to look seriously at an alternative" and follow the British example once the threat of war with Iraq passes, he said.

Ridge took issue with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's criticisms of the fight against terrorism, saying the South Dakota Democrat has a "different frame of reference" than most people.

Daschle said last week that the administration's inability to catch bin Laden raises questions about "whether or not we are winning the war on terror."

Ridge said the military has basically liberated Afghanistan and disrupted al-Qaida training camps, and that the United States, working with its allies, has frozen more than $100-million of al-Qaida assets and detained nearly 2,700 people for questioning, among other efforts.

"We will get bin Laden; we're committed to that," Ridge said.

He also said that an unidentified senior al-Qaida leader who U.S. officials said was recently captured overseas and is in American custody is now helping the United States. He did not elaborate.