Tuesday, January 18, 2005

As inauguration nears, terror warnings drop

As inauguration nears, terror warnings drop
Report finds 'no credible information' terrorists planning attack
By Dan Eggen and Sari Horwitz
The Washington Post
Updated: 11:15 p.m. ET Jan. 17, 2005

In April, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that al Qaeda terrorists might strike during this week's presidential inauguration festivities in Washington. The warning was part of a drumbeat sounded by U.S. officials throughout 2004 that terrorists were seeking to launch attacks both during and after the election season.

Nine months later, the threat level has been lowered, and Ridge, speaking at a news conference last week, said there is no evidence of a plot to disrupt President Bush's inauguration. Previous warnings, Ridge explained, stemmed from threat reports tied to the elections — not to the inauguration more than two months later.

"There is nothing that we've seen, not just today, but over the period of the preceding several weeks, that gives us any reason to even consider, at this point, raising the threat level," Ridge said. "Normally, it's an aggregation of information we receive that we conclude is credible over a period of time. But there's absolutely nothing out there that would suggest we should even think about it."

Politics of threat assessment
The shift in rhetoric about the dangers posed by terrorists during the inauguration marks the latest retreat from last year's terrorism warnings, which, in retrospect, were based largely on faulty intelligence, dated information or — as with the inauguration — an educated guess.

The change in posture also illustrates the extent to which sketchy scraps of wiretap information, interrogation reports and other intelligence, known colloquially as "chatter," form the basis for much of the government's analysis of the terrorism threat. It underscores a simmering political debate over whether last year's warnings were influenced by a presidential campaign in which national security figured prominently.

A confidential seven-page threat assessment issued last week by the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice said, "There is no credible information indicating that domestic or international terrorist groups are targeting the inauguration." But the assessment added that al Qaeda could make "a strategic decision to show that it has the ability to disrupt the American democratic process," according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post.

Ridge and other officials say they have little choice but to err on the side of caution by effectively shutting down a broad swath of Washington Thursday. An estimated 100 square blocks of downtown will be off-limits to the public during inaugural festivities, and about 7,000 troops will be deployed.

"It stands to reason if you're involved in law enforcement or security, that if you have one big event, at one spot, one platform where leaders from around the world are gathered at the same moment, it becomes an obvious target," said William H. Pickle, a former Secret Service official who is now Senate sergeant-at-arms. "Is it costly? Can it be overkill? Yes, but just imagine the ramifications and repercussions if something were to happen. . . . Law enforcement and security will always err on the side of safety, err on the side of doing something."

Al Qaeda has its own calendar
The al Qaeda terrorist network, which carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has rarely, if ever, timed its attacks to Western calendars, experts say. In addition, the invasion of Afghanistan and other military operations have crippled its ability to mount operations within the United States, while war-ravaged Iraq has emerged as both a haven and a magnet for would-be jihadists.

But U.S. officials say that stringent security measures at the inauguration are necessary in light of repeated statements from Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders about their desire to attack U.S. political symbols and assassinate government officials.

"After the Madrid attacks, there was a lot of buzz among jihadists that striking in the U.S. would be a logical next step," said Rand Corp. terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, referring to the pre-election bombings of commuter trains in the Spanish capital in March. "You have information that seems to be compelling but not quite specific, so you prudently expand it a bit to include the inauguration. . . . It's easier to protect special events than to maintain one's vigilance on just, say, January 31st, which is an ordinary day in an ordinary week."

Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, said that jihadist groups remain a strategic threat to the United States in general and to Bush in particular. "Although suicide bombings are al Qaeda's hallmark, al Qaeda trained its members in assassination," Gunaratna said.

Warnings system under attack
But some government officials and outside experts contend that the revelations about the debatable evidence used to justify last year's warnings undermine the government's credibility. During the presidential campaign, a handful of Democrats, including former Vermont governor Howard Dean, raised questions about possible political motivations behind the recurring terror alerts and statements.

"There is certainly the perception that the warning system has been too subjective and too subject to potential political influence," said Juliette N. Kayyem, head of the national security program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and a Justice Department official in the Clinton administration. "It makes you wonder why they said it in the first place. . . . We were in the middle of a campaign in which emphasizing the risk of an attack was a major part of the Republican agenda, and everybody knew that."

The warnings began shortly after the bombings in Madrid, which came four days before elections there and played a defining role in the defeat of the party of then-Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. From the outset, homeland security officials described the threat as targeted at the entire "election process," from the political conventions through Election Day, the electoral college voting and the inauguration.

Still, many in state and local homeland security agencies focused primarily on Election Day, one state homeland security official said. Even between key players such as Ridge and Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, there were sharp differences in interpreting the magnitude of the threat. That was demonstrated by a May news conference during which Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III took Ridge and others by surprise by warning of the dangers.

Louder alarms were sounded on Aug. 1, when Ridge warned of a high risk of attack based on computer files seized during raids in Pakistan that indicated al Qaeda operatives were casing financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington.

Chatter seen as outdated
Yet while authorities swiftly went public and raised terror warning levels for the three jurisdictions, analysts behind the scenes soon lessened the significance of the finds. The casing information had been compiled before the 2001 attacks, and other information came only from the Internet. The investigation led to arrests of suspected militants in Britain, but they are now thought to have been targeting London Heathrow Airport rather than U.S. sites.

In addition, a key CIA informer, whose information earlier in the year helped raise the alarms, turned out to be lying, numerous intelligence sources have said.

Analysis of the 2004 threat data continues, with the latest findings sent out by the FBI and the Homeland Security Department as recently as last week. Homeland Security has altered the way it interprets and disseminates "chatter," according to several officials.

"This is the great challenge that DHS faces and the entire national community faces," said Virginia homeland security adviser George W. Foresman. "You have to make some sort of intuitive judgment about information . . . It would be nice to be able to have three or four weeks to do analysis work and make a decision, but we're not in that environment."

Many U.S. security agencies have collectively concluded that the human and political consequences of underreacting are greater than overreacting.

"It's always easier to tighten things up on Day One and then loosen them later, than to have the data and then make a decision to tighten three weeks later," Foresman said. "It's easier to second-guess you then."

'Not an exact science'
Federal intelligence and law enforcement officials describe "chatter" as information from a multitude of sources, including intercepted phone conversations, e-mail exchanges, new and old informers, radio and walkie-talkie transmissions, and tips that come by letter, e-mail and telephone. Much, and perhaps most, of the information turns out to be inconclusive or wrong.

"I wish this was a perfect science where we went into a room, put on our lab coats, figured out an algorithm and then a plan of action," said Assistant FBI Director Michael A. Mason, who heads the Washington field office. "But this is not an exact science. It is not that pat."

Michael E. Rolince, who oversees counterterrorism and counterintelligence in Mason's office, said, "I would not use chatter as the sole indicator by which we raise and lower the threat level. I worry when chatter is high, low or in-between."

Another federal official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that a key component of chatter is interviews with prisoners in U.S. military custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere. But that information has gone stale, he said. "The debriefing of prisoners is not giving new information," the official said. "They've been in captivity too long, and the information is old."

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said he is not sure exactly what changed in the intelligence-gathering process since last spring.

"I don't know what specifically changed, but with intel you are constantly trying to verify its credibility as it comes in," Ramsey said. "As time goes on and they have a chance to analyze the information closer, things change."

But Ramsey said that police and federal agents are already doing about as much as they can about security, even without a specific threat to the inauguration.

U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said that with most of central Washington near the Mall and the Capitol closed to vehicles, it would be extremely difficult for a terrorist with a truck bomb to get near the Capitol or the president. But other security measures, including the large number of undercover and uniformed officers, are necessary because of the fear that a suicide bomber could get close to checkpoints.

Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and John Mintz and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.