Intercepted terror clues troubling

While unspecific, al-Qaida points to `something big'

May 19, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence agencies have intercepted vague yet troubling communications among al-Qaida operatives over the past few months indicating that the terrorist organization is trying to carry out an operation as big as or bigger than the Sept. 11 attacks, according to intelligence and law enforcement officials.

But the new interceptions are so general that they have left President Bush and his counter-terrorism team in the dark about the time, place and method of what some officials refer to as a second-wave attack.

The officials compared the intercepted messages, which they described as cryptic and ambiguous, to the pattern of those picked up last spring and early summer, when al-Qaida operatives were also overheard talking about a big operation.

Those signals were among the evidence that intelligence agencies presented to Bush in August about the possibility of an imminent attack against the United States.

A senior administration official said Friday that the amount of intelligence relating to another possible attack - in Europe, the Arabian Peninsula or the United States - had increased in the past month. Some of it comes from fighters captured in Afghanistan.

But despite the disruption of al-Qaida's operations around the world since Sept. 11, and despite major spending increases and shifts of resources to counter-terrorism operations, U.S. officials say they have not been able to fully piece together the clues about al-Qaida's plans.

"There's just a lot of chatter in the system again," the administration official said. "We are actively pursuing it and trying to see what's going on here."

Interviews with law enforcement and intelligence officials suggest that, since Sept. 11, the government has made only limited progress in its ability to predict al-Qaida's next move, and many proposed improvements in counter-terrorism operations have yet to be put into effect.

This is despite considerable advantages that the United States lacked a year ago. The war in Afghanistan has provided a wealth of new information about al-Qaida's structure and organization, for example.

In addition, the United States is interrogating captured al-Qaida fighters about the organization's plans. Officials say that debriefings of detainees have in some instances provided general warnings of another major attack that dovetail with the threats picked up in the intercepted communication traffic.

Facing intense criticism in recent days over disclosures that clues about al-Qaida's plans fell through the cracks in the months leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks, officials say that some significant changes have been made in the way threat information is studied and circulated within the upper reaches of the Bush administration.

For the first time, the CIA and the FBI now compare notes on all terrorist threat information that comes in each day, filtering the intelligence through what they call an analytical matrix to determine which threats are the most credible and deserve the most attention.

Their daily threat report is distributed to senior policy-makers, including the White House director of homeland security, Tom Ridge. It provides a structure for debates among senior officials about whether to issue public threat warnings.

Bush also now receives daily briefings from both the FBI and the CIA. George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, and Robert S. Mueller III, the FBI director, are often present at those sessions. That way, each agency can hear the other's latest advice to the president. Before Sept. 11, he received a daily briefing only from the CIA.

Although officials say some potential attacks have been foiled, that has been largely credited to the arrest of terrorist operatives overseas by foreign governments rather than to intelligence gleaned from intercepted communications.

U.S. intelligence officials said that they began in October to intercept communications among al-Qaida operatives discussing a second major attack, and that they have detected recurring talk among them about another attack ever since.

Some of the intercepted communications have included frightening references to attacks that the al-Qaida operatives say would cause vast numbers of U.S. casualties.

The intercepted communications don't point to any detailed plans for an attack, and even the messages mentioning mass casualties don't refer specifically to the use of weapons of mass destruction such as chemical, biological or nuclear devices.

Still, U.S. officials say they believe the intercepts represent some of the most credible intelligence received since Sept. 11 about al-Qaida's intentions.

The messages have provided a troubling undercurrent for officials as they try to sort through the hundreds of other terrorist threat warnings received over the past few months.

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