Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday the country is winning the war on terrorism but cautioned that Americans will never be completely isolated from the possibility of more terrorist attacks.

“I don’t think anyone has the confidence that we are totally safe, and that we are doing all we can to minimize the problem,” he said.

Ashcroft met with Maine law enforcement officials for about an hour at Southern Maine Technical College, which will become a community college on July 1, to talk about anti-terrorism measures and how to better protect Maine’s coastline and borders. He said communication and awareness are the best ways to help prevent another terrorist attack and that people need to be vigilant and report suspicious activity.

“We still have a substantial risk in the American culture,” he said.

His concerns were echoed by Adjutant Gen. Joseph Tinkham, Maine’s top military official.

“There’s no great sort of confidence that a terrorist who had the will and the means to come here couldn’t do it,” Tinkham said, pointing to Maine’s vast coastline and 611-mile border with Canada.

Ashcroft said the country has made great strides in improving the level of communication between officials at different levels of government. But recent al-Qaida and other terrorist attacks overseas are reminders that the country still remains at risk of an attack, he said.

He said intelligence received by the State Department is usually not specific enough to send out information to the states. “Sometimes the information simply isn’t as specific as you want it to be,” he said.

Ashcroft touted the USA Patriot Act as the country’s best protection against terror, echoing comments made to Congress last week.

The Patriot Act, passed by Congress shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, grants the federal government sweeping power including the use of wiretaps, electronic and computer eavesdropping and searches, and the authority to access a wide range of financial and other information in its investigations.

Ashcroft wants Congress to expand the new anti-terror law, which expires in October 2005, to permit the government to hold more suspects indefinitely and extend the death penalty to more people accused of terrorist crimes.

“Our ability to prevent more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil would be more difficult, if not impossible, without the Patriot Act,” he said.

The attorney general didn’t get into specifics about Maine’s security issues in his meeting with law-enforcement officials or while speaking to reporters afterward.

Tinkham said that a Coast Guard program that unofficially deputizes hundreds of fishermen who regularly work near the coastline is helping authorities to keep track of suspicious waterfront activity.

But the homeland security alert system and its different levels of alert are still obtuse and confusing, Tinkham said.

When the alert level rises, without specific information, “we don’t know what it is we should be protecting,” he said.

Ashcroft held similar meetings this week in Connecticut and New Hampshire. He has been telling local and state lawmakers that they need to share information to prevent terrorism.

AP-ES-06-12-03 1502EDT

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