WASHINGTON -- As the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Shelby has a sense about when it's time for the country to worry. And now, he says, is such a time.
An FBI warning about a spectacular terror attack isn't overblown, he said. There's been a rise in intercepted communications suggesting a terrorist strike and other hints, such as the emergence of an audiotape believed to be from Osama bin Laden.
"There are ominous signs that we should not ignore," Shelby, R-Ala., said Friday.
At the same time, he said, he's concerned that repeated warnings of imminent attacks will dull their effect. "How many warnings can you give out and then the American people, all of us, would ignore the next warning," he said.
In eight years on the Intelligence Committee, most of them as chairman, Shelby has been one of the leading congressional voices on national security matters, a regular on Sunday talk shows and all-news cable channels.
Starting in January, though, he'll be more likely to talk about the Securities and Exchange Commission than the CIA. He is leaving the Intelligence Committee and will likely become the next chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.
It's a departure that's likely to change the Intelligence Committee's tone. Shelby, 68, a former Democrat with an independent streak, has been one of the toughest critics of intelligence agencies and especially CIA Director George Tenet.
In an interview in his Capitol Hill office, Shelby declined to say whether he thought Tenet should be removed, but added: "I think we can do better."
"I think George Tenet's got a lot of strengths, but I don't think he manages the entire (intelligence) community as he should."
Shelby leaves the committee at a critical time, while the fight against al-Qaida continues, a possible war looms with Iraq and the House and Senate intelligence panels are completing an inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks.
That inquiry could serve as a blueprint for major changes in intelligence agencies. Congressional staff are trying to complete a final, classified report that can be approved before Shelby and other top members leave the committee.
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