WASHINGTON (AP) _ Clinton administration officials Sunday defended their decision to classify AIDS as a threat to national security _ a designation aimed at garnering more attention and funding toward combating the disease worldwide.

Sandy Thurman, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, said AIDS has become such an epidemic that, in years to come, it threatens to destabilize nations and the economies of whole continents.

``We have to respond to this because we've never seen a crisis like HIV and AIDS globally,'' Thurman said. ``We're beginning to understand that this epidemic, not only has health implications, but has implications as a fundamental development issue, an economic issue and a stability and security issue.''

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, in an appearance earlier in the day, said he does not believe AIDS is a national security threat.

``I guess this is just the president trying to make an appeal to, you know, certain groups,'' Lott, R-Miss., told ``Fox News Sunday.'' ``I don't view that as a national security threat, not to our national security interests, no.''

Thurman countered that a report earlier this year from the National Intelligence Council indicates that the disease is ``sweeping the globe,'' posing a crisis in Africa today and threatening India and newly independent nations of the former Soviet Union in the future.

``With the logistical expertise that the national security community brings, with the diplomatic expertise that is necessary to sort of pave the road for leaders around the world to respond to this epidemic, this gives us a whole new ability to respond to AIDS like we would respond to any other international threat,'' Thurman said.

The White House, in raising the status of AIDS, has creating an interagency working group. The Clinton administration has designated about $325 million to fighting the disease worldwide this year, most of it going to Africa, and the president wants an additional $100 million for fiscal 2001, Thurman said.

She said a large focus of the effort would be on finding a vaccine.