Terror alert a reminder of gaps in information

Intelligence: Much hinges on Pakistan, luck.

August 04, 2004|By Mark Matthews and Laura Sullivan | Mark Matthews and Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The events leading up to the terror alert announced by the Bush administration Sunday reveal wide gaps in what U.S. authorities know about terrorist threats and underscore America's dependence on foreign regimes to help gather vital intelligence.

It took the capture of al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan to uncover the extent to which the network had carefully cased financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington starting in 2000.

U.S. authorities say the trove of computer documents and photos seized in recent weeks shows that "many individuals" might have been involved in the surveillance.

But an FBI official said yesterday that they don't know how many were involved, who they are or whether they still are in the United States. And the evidence is mixed on whether the surveillance points to a continuing plot or one of many schemes that terrorists might have put on hold or abandoned.

"The information we have is that one cell of al-Qaida surveilled five sites. But there could be 10 other cells" surveying many more sites, said Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism specialist at the Congressional Research Service. "I don't think what was uncovered means this was the only plot, on only these sites."

"What it shows is, there is a lot we don't know," said David Heyman, director of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

While the evidence obtained reveals the surveillance that al-Qaida conducted, "what we don't know is the operational plan," said Heyman. Al-Qaida is known to be compartmentalized, with teams for surveillance, finance, planning and execution, although sometimes the latter two teams overlap, he said.

Investigators will now pursue the intelligence threads to find the leaders behind the plot and the people who conducted the surveillance, he said.

The fact that much of the al-Qaida surveillance occurred before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted some local officials yesterday to question whether the terror alert was justified.

"The federal government overreacted," said Jack Evans, a Washington City Council member who represents a district that includes the World Bank and International Monetary Fund headquarters, the two buildings here specifically mentioned as possible targets Sunday, as well as the White House and the Capitol. "The information was three years old, for God's sake."

Evans added that "it is hard to run a city when the federal government keeps stepping in and closing our streets off." He said the Bush administration did not highlight the fact that much of the intelligence was dated. "The way it was first presented was that this was an imminent threat. Guess it turns out this was not the case."

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge insisted at a news conference in New York yesterday that because of the heightened security steps, "we have made it much more difficult for the terrorists to achieve their broad objectives."

At a Senate hearing to review the Sept. 11 commission findings, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, said, "The data upon which this last alert was presented is kind of old information, and what does that say when we put out an alert like that? ... People are worried sick. And we add to the frenzy, we add to the anxiety, but frankly, I don't think we add much to the security."

Long-term planning

Careful, long-term planning is widely viewed as an al-Qaida hallmark.

Frances Townsend, a top counterterrorism adviser to President Bush, told Fox News yesterday that "the very detailed reports were done in 2000 and 2001" but "some of the intelligence we received was updated as recently as January of this year."

One senior intelligence official said some evidence suggests al-Qaida has been actively using or at least reviewing the information. "This is not something that has been gathering dust for three years sitting on a shelf," the official said. There are other intelligence sources suggesting the information is being used at the moment, the official said.

While the intelligence specifically refers to five sites - the New York Stock Exchange and Citicorp Center in New York; the Prudential Financial building in Newark, N.J.; and the World Bank and IMF headquarters here - other structures were mentioned as well, the official said: the Bank of America building in San Francisco, an unspecified private financial building in Washington, and other sites in New York and New Jersey.

Authorities do not believe those are being targeted at the moment, the official said.

But the gaps in domestic intelligence collection revealed this week "go to the heart of the problem of an open society" that makes surveillance of buildings relatively easy, said Katzman of the Congressional Research Service.

It also suggests that U.S. authorities might be concentrating on the wrong threats, according to Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security (CHHS) at the University of Maryland.

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