Saturday, April 30, 2005

U.S. Sees Drop in Terrorist Threats
U.S. Sees Drop in Terrorist Threats
Al Qaeda Focusing Attacks in Iraq and Europe, Officials Say

By Dana Priest and Spencer Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 1, 2005; A01

Reports of credible terrorist threats against the United States are at their lowest level since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to U.S. intelligence officials and federal and state law enforcement authorities.

The intelligence community's daily threat assessment, developed after the terrorist attacks to keep policymakers informed, currently lists, on average, 25 to 50 percent fewer threats against domestic targets than it typically did over the past two years, said one senior counterterrorism official.

A broad cross section of counterterrorism officials believes al Qaeda and like-minded groups, in part frustrated by increased U.S. security measures, are focusing instead on Americans deployed in Iraq, where the groups operate with relative impunity, and on Europe.

Though some are expressing caution and even skepticism, interviews last week with 25 current or recently retired officials also cited progress in counterterrorism operations abroad and a more experienced homeland security apparatus for a general feeling that it is more difficult for terrorists to operate undetected. The officials represent federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies, state and local homeland security departments and the private sector.

"We are breathing easier," said U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer, whose officers guard one of al Qaeda's expressed targets, and who is regularly briefed by the FBI and CIA. "The imminence of a threat seems to have diminished. We're just not as worried as we were a year ago, but we certainly are as vigilant."

"I agree," said John O. Brennan, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told of Gainer's assessment. "Progress has been made."

Brennan also said the initial post-Sept. 11 belief that there were large numbers of sleeper cells in the United States turned out to be "a lot of hyperbole." Some people believed "there was a terrorist under every rock."

But some intelligence analysts caution that the drop-off in terrorist-related planning, communication and movement could be a tactical pause by al Qaeda and related terrorist groups. No one suggests the threat has gone away.

Brennan and others fear most what they are not hearing or seeing, especially the possibility that al Qaeda has acquired chemical or biological weapons and adapted in ways that have evaded detection. Analysts also say a flood of new terrorists motivated by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq may try to travel here and reverse the relative calm of today's environment, as they are doing in Europe.

But for now, most officials acknowledged a change in perception, for the better. Most of these officials declined to speak on the record, for fear, as one put it, "that something will go boom" and the public will blame them for being complacent.

On Jan. 6, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge signaled the change in threat level during his last roundtable discussion with reporters, weeks before he stepped down. Asked to explain the decline in suspected terrorist activity in the prior months, he responded:

"Your characterization of it as being a significantly different threat environment, based on what we historically have heard, is absolutely correct," Ridge said. "So there certainly is a diminution, reduction in the amount of intelligence, and the decibel level is lower."

Evidence of a lower decibel level is pervasive.

Behind closed doors, the weekly, classified "hot spot" briefings for congressional intelligence committees are consumed less by domestic terrorist threats than they have been, said people who have attended the meetings. "It's not as forefront in people's minds," one such official said. "There's not the same concern as there was a year ago about an imminent threat."

Some federal law enforcement officials say they know of no major counterterrorism cases soon to be made public.

The House Homeland Security Committee voted last week to reopen Reagan National Airport to private aircraft and to eliminate the color-coded warning system that is one of the icons of the post-Sept. 11 era. The number of secure briefings for lawmakers has dropped too, said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee who has been critical of excessive security in Washington. "That in itself is an indication there is less to report."

Life in Washington seems closer to normal, especially after the tightened security before last November's election. The validity of top officials' publicly stated belief that terrorists wanted to attack during the pre-election period is now hotly debated within the counterterrorism community. But the rotating checkpoints around the Capitol have become less disruptive, and a booming real estate market is a concrete symbol that people are not afraid to move to a potential ground zero.

Business sectors also note a change in broader public behavior. Hotel occupancy, room rates and revenue in Washington so far this year are the highest since 2001, the D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp. reported.

Counterterrorism officials said the atmosphere, particularly in the Washington area, also has calmed because they are less jittery and less inclined to warn the public about every vague, unsubstantiated threat. In the past, they feared being accused of missing something.

With 3 1/2 years of experience, their ability to cull serious from baseless threats has matured, officials said.

"People are more hesitant to pull the trigger, and now think, 'Let's wait a day or two' to investigate," said John Rollins, former chief of staff for DHS's intelligence unit and now an analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

The intelligence community now can better identify the "unreliable and bogus threats," said NCTC's Brennan. "We don't have to go into crisis mode. In the past, we had a lot of brush fires developing. Now, we can deal with it with a better filter."

There is also the broad recognition that "the sky can't be falling every day," said one senior Washington law enforcement official.

U.S. officials, including Brennan, also express growing confidence in improved domestic security. They believe improvements in border security, counter-surveillance tactics and information sharing among law enforcement agencies would make it difficult for the Sept. 11, 2001, attack plotters to evade detection today.

Counterterrorism squads have also begun learning how to recruit informants and follow leads that do not necessarily lead to arrests, an official in the field said. "They thought they would be rounding up terrorists every week," said one senior counterterrorism official who helped train such a squad outside Washington. "But they weren't. There was some frustration," but the same officers are now learning intelligence tradecraft, he said.

Police are also honing counterterrorism efforts, working with businesses nationwide to screen for suspicious activity involving the acquisition of certain kinds of materials, vehicles, training and licenses that have figured into terrorist plots.

Public vigilance remains high, at least in major cities, officials said. This winter, for example, FBI agents were called to investigate when workers at a Northern Virginia hospital grew suspicious of two men who asked about nighttime staffing levels, ostensibly because they were considering whether their new doughnut shop should stay open 24 hours.

It turned out the men had, in fact, obtained a new doughnut franchise, two security officials said.

"Could what happened with the 9/11 operators in the pre-event stage happen today and nobody pick up on it? No, I don't think so," said Cathy Lanier, head of special operations for the D.C. Police Department. "If they went through the same surveillance practices, forged documents, they would be picked up somehow. Along the line, there would be red flags, and I would say there is probably a good chance the red flags would have come through the public and not law enforcement or other sources."

Even if the threat has eased, officials throughout the government acknowledge major shortcomings in homeland security. Borders remain porous, chemical plants are poorly protected, the quality of baggage inspection is uneven, and countless other vulnerabilities have not been addressed.

Some officials also express a nagging worry that analysts simply have less information to sift through, or less time to concentrate on it given the bureaucratic transitions in the intelligence community.

"There's been a kind of constant non-action, or non-tension whatever you want to call it," one state homeland security adviser said. "There's not a whole lot of new stuff."

Several officials in urban areas that are considered prime targets, said they worried most about what law enforcement is not detecting. "I'm not so comforted" by the drop in intelligence warnings coming out of Washington, said one senior U.S. intelligence official based elsewhere. "I'm concerned about what is going on under our radar scope. And I'm worried about the radar scope."

Michael A. Mason, the assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington field office, said that as far as he is concerned, there has been no drop in the threat level.

"The desire to harm Americans is certainly still out there whether that is wrapped around a specific threat or not," Mason said.

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, who co-chairs the homeland security committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, cautions that "complacency can settle in the further we get from 9/11. We tend to think everything is normal. I don't feel that way."

Ramsey said he believes the Homeland Security color code will never go below its current level of yellow, which denotes an "elevated" threat level.

"We will never be at green again," Ramsey said. "Normal was redefined on 9/11. Normal is yellow."

Staff writers Sari Horwitz, Dan Eggen, John Mintz and Allan Lengel and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.