Why the Threat Level Was Lowered

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Mueller's FBI and Tenet's CIA can't agree on the terror threat level

The national terror alert level was downgraded Thursday from Orange (high) to Yellow (elevated), following weeks of disagreement over intelligence reports and threat assessment capabilities. TIME's Elaine Shannon reports on the maneuvering behind the scenes.

In high-level meetings late last week, FBI officials urged the administration to lower the latest terror threat level from Orange to Yellow on grounds that current intelligence contains no concrete information about active operations or specific terror targets. CIA analysts' warnings that attacks might take place around Feb. 14 to coincide with the end of the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Islam's holiest sites, had gone unrealized. Bureau officials worried about the alert's corrosive effects on local law enforcement agencies, already stretched well beyond their budgets, as officers were forced by the heightened alert level to work even longer hours. FBI officials were also concerned that a protracted alert could erode the color-coded system's credibility with the public, leaving people numb to true danger signs.

In the daily sessions held to review the alert level, Central Intelligence Agency officials disagreed with the FBI's assessment, arguing that, as one source put it, "there's no cause for breathing easier — the principal reasons for going to Orange are still out there." And until Thursday, the CIA argument carried the day.

Early last week, FBI officials tried to persuade Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and Attorney General John Ashcroft to move back to yellow, but until Thursday, both men favored the CIA perspective. "While some (reported threats) haven't panned out," said an official familiar with their reasoning, "other things (of a threatening nature) have come in and have to be run down."

But skeptics, particularly law enforcement officials, groused that the sustained high alert level was driven mainly by subjective judgments from CIA analysts — who, unlike the FBI and its friends in local law enforcement, didn't have to bear any of the costs of the heightened state of alert. "You can't debunk (the CIA assessments), said one lawman. "(They're) all so vague."