Sunday, October 24, 2004

Has the Bush administration lied to us yet again to scare us into voting for them?

The New York Times
October 24, 2004

Little Evidence of Qaeda Plot Timed to Vote

WASHINGTON, Oct. 23 - In early July, the Homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, declared that credible intelligence showed Al Qaeda intended to launch a "large-scale attack" inside the United States to "disrupt our democratic process." More than three months later, counterterrorism officials in the United States and overseas say they are still concerned, but have uncovered little specific evidence of a plot timed to the election.

Extensive investigations into the most significant reported threat unearthed this year, a years-old Qaeda surveillance operation thought to be aimed at five financial institutions in New York, Newark and Washington, has found no sign that it had evolved into concrete operations.

There are now doubts among intelligence officials that a group of eight men arrested in Britain last August planned to strike in the United States around the presidential election, as suspected at first.

And an informant on Al Qaeda, who told authorities last spring that there might be an election-season attack in the United States, has recently been discredited, the officials said.

In a series of interviews here and abroad over the last two months, some intelligence and counterterrorism officials say that even after the political conventions passed without incident, they still fear an undetected plot, either before or after the Nov. 2 election. Others say they suspect a plan might have existed and been disrupted or postponed.

"We've undertaken a bunch of actions," said one senior administration official. "We don't know whether we've disrupted them or not. We continue to consider it a very serious threat and we continue to be at a higher operational level. If Nov. 2 comes and goes and nothing happens, I am not going to sleep any better at night."

But there are also those, especially abroad, who question the information and analyses relied on by Mr. Ridge and other senior Bush administration officials in their repeated public warnings of an election-year terror threat.

"I've seen some analytical pieces from the bureau and the agency," said one senior American counterintelligence official, referring to election threat reports by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. "On a scale of one to a hundred, I'd give it about a two."

But three top national security officials said that the intelligence seemed persuasive, and was backed up by specific and credible sources providing a reasonable basis for warnings. Those sources, they said, included informants with an inside knowledge of Al Qaeda, captured Qaeda operatives, intercepted communications and material taken from computer hard drives and discs.

In May, July and August, law enforcement and homeland security officials made high-profile announcements that traced a trajectory of rising alarm about a possible attack timed to the election season. But an intense international search for more clues has left investigators empty-handed.

Each of the nearly two dozen American and European officials interviewed for this article said that Al Qaeda remained an extremely serious threat. All of the officials refused to be named because they were discussing classified information. Each is directly involved in national security or counterterrorism and is regularly briefed on terrorism developments.

To varying degrees, these counterterrorism officials expressed doubts that Al Qaeda has had a fixed target date related to the elections. Several of them said that past terror attacks by Al Qaeda suggested that the bin Laden network typically struck when its chances of success appeared greatest, with little regard to the political calendar.

In a recent interview, Mr. Ridge held to this view. "I would say that, at least from Homeland Security's perspective, a date or a time line is important, but they operate I think, at the end of the day, whenever they're ready," he said. "Whenever they feel they can execute successfully an attack, they'll do it. If they can do it before the election, they'll do it. Will they accelerate it because the election is here? I don't know. They seem to have indicated that they will or they'd like to, whether they have the capacity to do it or not."

In Europe and the Middle East, senior counterterrorism officials say they have been perplexed and uneasy about the American officials' warnings. They say that last summer they had seen no evidence of an election-year threat in their own intelligence reports.

In interviews, these officials, based in eight countries, including Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Italy and Jordan, said they had not seen a single solid piece of intelligence, like a statement of a Qaeda operative or an intercepted phone conversation, to back up the warnings.

"I am aware of no intelligence, nothing that shows there will be an attack before the U.S. presidential election," said a senior European-based counterterrorism official.

A senior administration official said that not all intelligence is shared with every ally. American officials said they are determined not to allow any disruption of the campaign and election, but they were also concerned not to be caught off guard.

American intelligence officials said that their thinking changed after the March 11 Madrid commuter train bombings, which occurred four days before a national election in Spain.

The first alert came as a surprise even to some senior American counterterrorism officials. At a joint news conference on May 27, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Director Robert S. Mueller III of the F.B.I., released the identities and photographs of seven suspected Qaeda operatives who they said "posed a clear and present danger." Mr. Ashcroft said the information was corroborated by Qaeda's public statements that its preparations for an attack in the United States were "90 percent complete."

A number of events might be targeted, Mr. Ashcroft said, including the G-8 economic summit in Georgia last June, the two national political conventions in Boston and New York this past summer and the Nov. 2 balloting. (The Olympics, too, were a target that passed without incident.).

"The Madrid railway bombings were perceived by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda to have advanced their cause," Mr. Ashcroft said. "Al Qaeda may perceive that a large-scale attack in the United States this summer or fall would lead to similar circumstances."

After Mr. Ashcroft's announcement, Mr. Ridge seemed surprised by the attorney general's election- season warning. Asked why the national color-coded alert level had not been raised, Mr. Ridge replied: "There is nothing specific enough. There's not a consensus within the administration that we need to raise the threat level."

But on July 8, Mr. Ridge called his own news conference to announce that intelligence reports pointed to Al Qaeda's desire to strike the United States and this time he said the information pointed to an election-season attack.

"Credible reporting now indicates that Al Qaeda is moving forward with its plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the United States in an effort to disrupt our democratic process," Mr. Ridge told reporters. "We lack precise knowledge about time, place and method of attack, but along with the C.I.A., F.B.I. and other agencies, we are actively working to gain that knowledge." He cited arrests made in Britain, Jordan and Italy, as well as the ongoing investigation into the Madrid train bombings.

But once again, Mr. Ridge said that it was unnecessary to raise the national alert level. And the Justice Department dismissed news reports that its lawyers might review the law to determine whether an election could be postponed because of terror threats or an actual attack.

At a background briefing after Mr. Ridge spoke, a senior intelligence official said the threat appeared to have been directed by Mr. bin Laden or one of his chief lieutenants like Ayman al-Zawahiri.

European intelligence officials, though, said that they had seen no information indicating an attack against the election. "There was a concern about the possibility of an attack, but this went back to the early spring," said one official. "I believe the Americans looked at Madrid, and figured it could happen there."

Then, on Aug. 1, Mr. Ridge called an unusual Sunday afternoon news conference to announce that there was a "high risk" of a terrorist attack based on information that had been received three days earlier. Al Qaeda operatives had had under surveillance five financial buildings in Manhattan, Newark and Washington.

This time, the national terrorist threat level was raised, but only in the three cities affected by the latest information. But the investigation of the evidence, found in computer files dating to before Sept. 11, 2001, that were seized in recent raids in Pakistan, no clear link to the elections.

Still, investigators' conclusions that Adnan G. el-Shukrijuma, one of the seven wanted men, had participated in the surveillance of the New York Stock Exchange was a cause for continued concern, as he is still at large. Sometimes called "Jafar the Pilot" because it was thought that he had received flight training, a notion that law enforcement officials have come to doubt. He was born in Saudi Arabia, used to live in South Florida and is suspected of leading a terrorist cell.

The alerts prompted a massive response by law enforcement agencies in the affected cities. Snipers were stationed on rooftops of nearby buildings, police with bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the building's lobbies and roadblocks in all three cities snarled traffic. In Washington, Capitol Hill police tightened security around Congress.

The continuing investigation into the computer files, seized from Mohammed Neem Noor Khan, a Qaeda communications specialist, and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, wanted in the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, led to a cell in Britain, which British police had been surreptitiously monitoring for months

On Aug. 3, they arrested 13 people suspected of terrorist acts, including a 32-year-old British-raised Indian named Abu Elsa al-Hindi, who the authorities suspect traveled to the United States to lead the surveillance operation at the financial institutions. Eight of the 13 men remain in custody, facing charges that they had plotted to launch a terrorist attack, though prosecutors have refused to say when or where.

Other officials familiar with the case, however, say that they now believe the men were targeting Heathrow Airport in London. At a recent briefing, a senior administration official said that the investigation into Mr. Kahn and the British cell had not found signs of an active plot, but the official suggested that Al Qaeda might have switched to other targets.

"If the election comes and goes without an attack, if the inauguration comes and goes with another attack, it's still not time to take a sigh of relief," the official said. "Al Qaeda is patient. They are going to conduct operations when they are capable and ready to do so."

David Johnston reported from Washington for this article, and Don Van Natta Jr., from London. William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting from New York, and Christopher Drew and Eric Lipton from Washington.