Bush defends terror alerts

President says authorities have obligation to warn

`This is a dangerous time'

More emerges on threat to members of Congress

August 07, 2004|By Mark Matthews and Laura Sullivan | Mark Matthews and Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush gave a spirited defense of this week's terror alerts in New York, New Jersey and Washington yesterday, as more details emerged of FBI warnings to Congress of a potential al-Qaida attack on U.S. lawmakers.

"When we find out intelligence that is real, that threatens people, I believe we have an obligation, as government, to share that with people," Bush said at a convention of minority journalists. "Imagine what would happen if we didn't share that information with the people in those buildings and something were to happen, then what would you write?"

The government, he said, has a responsibility to "ferret out the truth and follow leads."

"This is a dangerous time," he said. "I wish it wasn't this way. I wish I wasn't the war president. Who in the heck wants to be a war president? I don't. But this is what came our way. ..."

A government official, meanwhile, confirmed a Los Angeles Times report that the FBI had notified top House and Senate leaders, the U.S. Capitol police and the Capitol sergeant-at-arms last week of an al-Qaida threat to members of Congress.

While the threat is "unspecified and uncorroborated," counterterrorism officials deemed it serious enough to issue the warning, the official said. Capitol police tightened security, leading to multiple road closings and vehicle checks around the House and Senate.

Bush's defense of the terror warnings appeared to reflect the administration's sensitivity to suspicions, voiced by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and others, that the administration chose last Sunday, three days after the Democratic convention, to turn public attention to the war on terrorism, a source of political strength for the president.

In issuing the alert, the administration cited intelligence showing that terrorists had conducted detailed surveillance of the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup building in New York; the Prudential Financial building in Newark, N.J.; and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund headquarters in Washington.

Although much of the intelligence dated from 2000 and 2001, officials stressed that al-Qaida typically plans its attacks years in advance. And yesterday, the No. 2 official at the Homeland Security department, James Loy, said computer records of the surveillance appeared to have been updated in January.

British officials, meanwhile, sounded an alarm over al-Qaida threats to merchant shipping, saying the terror network recognizes the importance of maritime trade to the global economy. Particularly vulnerable, one official said yesterday, are ports, narrow straits and canals offering access from land to targeted vessels.

To date, terrorist attacks on ships have been relatively rare. Al-Qaida terrorists in Yemen struck an American warship, the USS Cole, on Oct. 12, 2000, killing 17 sailors; two years later, also in Yemen, terrorists set off an explosion aboard the French-flagged oil tanker Limburgoff.

But officials said terrorists now recognize the large role commercial shipping plays in global commerce and are looking for ways to disrupt it.

"What we've noticed is that al-Qaida and other organizations have an awareness about maritime trade," Britain's top naval official, Adm. Sir Alan West, told the shipping publication Lloyd's List in an interview published Thursday. "They've realized how important it is for world trade in general, [and] they understand that significance."

Coast Guard officials in Baltimore and Washington said they had not been told of any specific new threat, but spokesman Paul Rhynard said, "Does al-Qaida want to attack the shipping industry? Absolutely."

The new flurry of threat disclosures comes after arrests in Pakistan and Britain of alleged al-Qaida operatives, several believed to be linked to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the reputed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks who is being held by U.S. authorities abroad.

The seizures began in June with the arrest in Pakistan of Abdal-Kareem Abu Musab al-Baluchi, said to be a nephew of Mohammed. Later arrests in Pakistan, including Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, led authorities to a trove of computer evidence showing surveillance of U.S. financial institutions.

This week's arrest of 13 suspects in Britain, 10 of whom are still being held, is described as particularly significant.

U.S. officials confirmed yesterday that Abu Issa al-Hindi - a British terrorist suspect arrested Tuesday in Britain who was allegedly involved in casing the five buildings cited in Sunday's alert - is also known as Issa al Britani and appears in the report of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks.

According to the report, Mohammed sent al-Hindi to the United States in 2001 to "case potential economic and `Jewish' targets in New York City." A counterterrorism official said yesterday that the targets likely included at least some of the financial sites mentioned in Sunday's terror alert.

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