Bush receives flood of reports daily on unconfirmed threats

In `horrific' updates, more is unknown than known

March 02, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - The terrorist threat assessment given to President Bush each morning has gotten so scary in recent weeks that one senior administration official no longer wants to know what it says.

"I stopped reading it," the official told the New York Daily News. "It's a very depressing document."

The daily terror update, called the "threat matrix," is a 12- to 20-page document compiled by the CIA and FBI. It details the latest intelligence on who or what might be attacked, what poison or weapon might be used and what is being done to verify or ward off the attack.

The source described it as "the most horrific information."

What can be so unsettling about the ominous details in the threat matrix is that there is almost no way to determine which are genuine and which are phony. "You almost have to wait for something to happen," said Nick Catrantzos, a former CIA operations officer.

Even in relatively normal times, raw intelligence about threats is maddeningly vague and fragmented. It's often unconfirmable. Sometimes it's fabricated by informants trying to please their handlers or mislead them.

In the past month, however, the task facing U.S. intelligence analysts was compounded not only by a surge in worldwide terrorist chatter, but also by key dates in the Muslim world converging and a new audiotape from Osama bin Laden.

The report noted key dates of concern: the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which ended Feb. 12; the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's anti-U.S. fatwa on Feb. 24, 1998; and the 10th anniversary of the first bombing of the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993.

"Several factors lead us to assess the next big attack is not far off," said a secret Pentagon report obtained by the Daily News. But every conclusion seems to get qualified.

"If you're hearing about [threats] in a color code, it is by definition vague information," a former senior intelligence officer said. "If we knew enough, we wouldn't have to go to a color code. We could go stop it."

Sometimes raw intelligence is so vague that officials engage in "predictive analysis" of perceived threats to anticipate possible plots.

According to a secret Feb. 5 CIA memo, there is a 59 percent chance terrorists aided by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will launch a "devastating" strike inside the United States by March 31. Despite the exactness of the number, the prediction is just a wild guess by a small group of analysts, said a U.S. official, who stressed that no plot has been uncovered.

Like covert-action bookies, the CIA group used an arcane mathematical theory to calculate the odds of Iraqi terrorism.

"Available intelligence on this scenario is scarce, indirect, fragmentary and circumstantial," the U.S. official said.

The CIA and FBI have also been duped into reporting raw intelligence as fact.

A threat that might have helped persuade authorities to issue the Orange Alert last month was proved bogus after an informant flunked an FBI lie detector test. Separately, an al-Qaida plot, code-named Blue Mercury, to smuggle a chemical weapon through Mexico in July was fabricated by an informer, according to secret reports.

Other threat reports circulated inside the intelligence community are chilling if true.

"Two separate sources reported that as of early June, al-Qaida members had infiltrated an `atomic device' into the U.S.," the CIA alerted federal terrorism officials last month, adding that an unidentified foreign government feared it was "a nuclear bomb which may have been purchased from a former Soviet republic for $2 million."

The CIA couldn't confirm the tip and questioned in its report whether the story was "circular reporting" - a bit of information repeated by two snitches who know each other - or "unsubstantiated discussions circulating within extremist circles."

The report's wording suggests skeptical CIA officials wanted to cover themselves in case the information turned out to be accurate, Catrantzos said.

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