WASHINGTON -- The United States could face terrorist surprises ''vastly more deadly'' than the Sept. 11 attacks that killed more than 3,000 people, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday.
On a day in which other administration officials said the nation is likely to remain on a high state of alert for some time, Rumsfeld said terrorists who managed to get unconventional weapons and deliver them great distances with ballistic missiles could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Amid evidence that the al-Qaida terrorist network may have been studying U.S. nuclear plants, dams and water-supply systems as potential targets, Rumsfeld said the magnitude of danger will grow if terrorists are allowed to link up with rogue nations willing to provide them with nuclear weapons.
''These attacks could grow vastly more deadly than those we suffered,'' he said in a speech at the National Defense University, a graduate school for senior military officers and government officials.
Rumsfeld suggested that the answer to such threats may be pre-emptive strikes.
''The best, and in some cases, the only defense is a good offense,'' he said, since the New York and Pentagon attacks showed it is not possible to defend against every conceivable threat.
Separately, government officials said nuclear power plant operators were alerted last week that terrorists might be planning an airplane attack on a reactor. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission based its alert on information from an al-Qaida operative, the officials said. Later the commission followed up with an advisory stating that the information had not been corroborated or otherwise authenticated.
The alert said ''the attack was already planned'' and three people already ''on the ground'' were trying to recruit non-Arabs to take part, one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller told reporters he believes there are ''sleeper cells'' of terrorists waiting for word to attack, and thus the nation remains on high alert. He said information about possible threats to America has emerged from interviews with captured al-Qaida fighters and an enormous cache of documents, videotapes and other materials recovered in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Rumsfeld, in a question-and-answer session after his speech, alluded to what President Bush in his State of the Union address called a peril that ''draws closer and closer.''
''The real concern at the present time is the nexus between terrorist networks and terrorist states that have weapons of mass destruction,'' he said.
He named no countries but has said before that Iran, Iraq and North Korea -- a trio that Bush called an ''axis of evil'' -- have such links to terrorists.
''Let there be no doubt, there is that nexus, and it must force people all across this globe to realize that what we're dealing with here is something that is totally different,'' he said. ''It poses risks to not thousands of lives but hundreds of thousands of lives, when one thinks of the power and lethality of those weapons.''
Elaborating on Bush's pledge to hold North Korea, Iran and Iraq accountable for actions that support terrorist networks, Condo-leezza Rice said Thursday those nations have been ''put on notice.''
She called North Korea the world's No. 1 seller of ballistic missiles; the Pentagon accuses the North Koreans of selling missiles to Iran and Pakistan and fears these weapons could spread.
Rice for the first time gave some hint of the steps the Bush administration might take against Iran, Iraq and North Korea. It will work toward international agreements banning the spread of dangerous weapons, use a ''new and budding'' relationship with Russia to push for changes in those countries and move ahead with missile defense, she said.
In a speech in Florida, Bush made the case for allied cooperation against terrorism.
''The rest of the world needs to be with us because these weapons could be pointed at them just as easily as us,'' he said.
Rumsfeld used his speech to lay out the Bush administration's justification for proposing a $48 billion increase in the 2003 defense budget. He revealed no dollar specifics but said priorities include missile defense, better systems for protecting space satellites against attack and new earth-penetrating weapons that Rumsfeld said could render terrorists' underground bunkers vulnerable.
Rumsfeld's remarks coincided with new indications that terrorists have considered a range of possible attacks. The FBI warned on Wednesday that al-Qaida terrorists may have been studying American dams and water-supply systems in preparation for new attacks. And in a report to Congress made public Wednesday, CIA Director George Tenet said rudimentary diagrams of nuclear weapons were found in a suspected al-Qaida safehouse in Kabul, Afghanistan. Other evidence uncovered in Afghanistan includes diagrams of American nuclear power plants, although it is unclear if an attack was planned.
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