Rep. Christopher Lee, a second-term New York lawmaker, is resigning from Congress after the release of e-mails that the married Republican allegedly sent through an online personals site.

Wednesday's abrupt announcement came just hours after the website Gawker published an exchange between Lee and a woman, which included a shirtless photo of Lee, 46. In the e-mails, apparently sent from Lee's personal e-mail using his real name, he claimed to be a 39-year-old divorced lobbyist.

"The challenges we face... are too serious for me to allow this distraction to continue, and so I am announcing that I have resigned my seat in Congress effective immediately," said Lee, who has a son. "I regret the harm that my actions have caused my family, my staff and my constituents."

According to the e-mails, the exchange allegedly began when Lee replied to an online ad posted by a single 34-year-old woman on Craigslist in the "Women for Men" section. He described himself as "a very fit fun classy guy." "I promise not to disappoint," he wrote.

The woman sent the e-mails to Gawker after she searched for his name online and discovered that he was lying.

VIRGINIA DEMOCRAT WON'T RUN IN 2012

Sen. James Webb, D-Va., said he would not run for a second term in 2012, ensuring that the race to replace him will be among the most intense contests in the country.

He did not specifically explain why he had decided to retire. But Webb, elected in 2006 in a heated race against Republican Sen. George Allen, has been an idiosyncratic figure on Capitol Hill -- a serious thinker who never seemed to embrace the more political and personal aspects of the job such as raising money and attending ceremonial events.

It creates an open seat in traditionally Republican territory that could further tilt the map in the GOP's favor in 2012. Webb is the third Democratic (or affiliated) senator to call it quits this year, joining Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Kent Conrad, N.D. Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is the lone Republican to say she will not seek reelection. The seats in Virginia and North Dakota -- when coupled with the fact that there are 23 Democratic seats up this cycle compared with 10 for Republicans -- paint a stark portrait of the challenge Democrats face.

OFFICIALS: HIGHEST THREAT LEVEL SINCE 9/11

Senior Homeland Security officials warned that the threat to the United States is the highest it has been since Sept. 11, 2001, citing the emergence of more foreign terrorist groups, a sharp increase in extremists in this country and the "lone wolf" operator who authorities worry is out there but they may not be able to stop.

"The terrorist threat facing our country has evolved significantly," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. "In some ways, the threat facing us is at its most heightened state since those attacks."

Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said his concerns include someone operating unbeknownst to authorities and with the means and determination of a Faisal Shahzad, who last summer unsuccessfully tried to bomb New York's Times Square. While officials "work tirelessly ... we cannot guarantee safety," he said.

Napolitano said, "We are more prepared than we were two years ago."

HOUSE FAILS TO APPROVE PATRIOT ACT EXTENSION

The House failed to extend the life of three surveillance tools that are key to the nation's post-Sept. 11 anti-terror law, a slipup for the new Republican leadership that miscalculated the level of opposition.

The House voted 277 to 148 to keep the three provisions of the USA Patriot Act on the books until Dec. 8. But Republicans brought up the bill under a special expedited procedure requiring a two-thirds majority, and the vote was seven short of reaching that level.

The Republicans lost 26 of their own members, adding to the 122 Democrats who voted against it. Supporters say the three measures are vital to preventing another terrorist attack, but critics say they infringe on civil liberties. They appealed to the antipathy that newer and more conservative Republicans hold for big government invasions of individual privacy.

NEWS SERVICES