U.S. still on terror alert as embassies reopen

(CBS News) The U.S. government was "absolutely not" overreacting by closing 19 embassies and consulates last week amid signs of an al Qaeda plot against U.S. diplomatic posts in the Middle East and other Muslim countries, lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee argued Sunday on "Face the Nation."

"We can't be critical of Benghazi because there was not enough protection and now be critical because there's too much," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said. "It's best to opt to secure American lives, especially in this situation. This was really out of the ordinary. In an extraordinary world, this was the most extraordinary I've seen in at least the last seven years."

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, agreed there was "strong" information, "especially in Yemen," picked up by U.S. intelligence last weekend. The threat emanated from Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - one of the most active terrorist groups within the al Qaeda network - which Ruppersberger observed is "getting stronger, and their focus has been the United States."

"Any time an American is put at risk in the world or in our homeland, we have to deal with it; we have to be cautious," he said. "It wasn't just one incident - there's corroboration that's occurring." King agreed: "This was not a case of connecting the dots - this was clear, explicit intelligence and evidence."

National Security Agency and CIA programs designed to track terrorists by culling metadata from Americans - which are currently generating heat from some civil liberties advocates - offer "the best defense against terrorism," Ruppersberger said. "Clearly, the people of al Qaeda and the terrorists of jihad - they're out there planning every day to kill us."

The State Department announced Friday that it would reopen all closed facilities except for the embassy based in the capital of Yemen. With officials still unsure of the target of last week's threat, though, King suggested the United States is still on alert: "If we do get through this without there being an attack, I do think we have to be more aggressive. We should be doing more interrogating to head these off in the future."

Indeed, CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan observed, reopening most of the embassies relays "the idea that the immediate threat is less intense." But heightened security at high-threat embassies suggest "extreme nervousness coming up, going through the Sept. 11 holiday.

"We are in a period of heightened scrutiny post-Benghazi," Brennan went on. "The question is, really: 'Has the security improved enough to protect our diplomats abroad?'"

No, predicted the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran: "This isn't really the old diplomatic business as usual," he said. "We're in a fortress environment. The two embassies that opened the soonest were Baghdad and Kabul - places where we essentially have walls and walls and legions of guards. That's going to be the new normal in parts of the Middle East."

  • Lindsey Boerma On Twitter»

    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.

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