Back to website

August 4 2004

Terror alert: how four-year-old information was transformed into clear and present danger

By Andrew Buncombe in Washington, Nigel Morris and Jason Bennetto

04 August 2004

The Bush administration was forced into the embarrassing admission yesterday that "new" intelligence about al-Qa'ida's plans to attack US financial institutions - information that led to an official alert and a slew of fresh security measures - was up to four years old and predated the 11 September attacks.

Intelligence officials were forced into retreat just a day after they had said fresh and "alarmingly" specific information indicated terrorists were planning attacks on institutions in Washington, New York and New Jersey and had been carrying out surveillance of the targets. One investigator had even said that al-Qa'ida operatives had recently carried out a "test-run" for an attack against a bank.

The security alert in the US prompted alarming reports yesterday of potential attacks on targets in Britain. Head-lines in British newspapers yesterday suggested banks in the City and Canary Wharf could be in bombers' sights.

Government and counter-terrorist sources said the UK security threat remained unchanged. Anti-terrorist sources said that there was no specific information about targets in Britain contained in the material from Pakistan or any intelligence that needed to be acted upon immediately.

One city insider accused sections of the media of "irresponsible sensationalism", adding: "The feeling from the Home Office, Metropolitan Police and other London banks is the story has been blown out of proportion. Security has been high since 2001."

While no extra police officers were deployed in Britain as a direct response to the reports, London-based bankers and city chiefs, alarmed at events in the US, were seeking advice from Scotland Yard.

Tom Ridge, the Homeland Security Secretary, admitted yesterday that the decision to warn the financial institutions was based on information that was at least three years old.

He said, however, that the threat remained real and the decision to issue the warning and raise the security level had been "essential". His statement came at the same time that authorities reopened part of the Statue of Liberty for the first time since the attacks in 2001.

"I don't want anyone to disabuse themselves of the seriousness of this information simply because there are some reports that much of it is dated; it might be two or three years old," he said, speaking at the Citi- group building in Manhattan, which was named as a potential target. He said there was evidence al-Qa'ida had been casing targets as recently as January.

Replying to accusations the alerts were, to an extent, politically motivated, he added: "We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security. This is not about politics. It's about confidence in government. We have made it more difficult for the terrorists to achieve their broad objectives."

Despite Mr Ridge's assertion, a transcript of a background briefing provided to the US media on Sunday night by intelligence agencies reveals the extent to which officials were determined to imply the information was current. It was that briefing on which the majority of reports were based.

During the briefing one official, described only as a "senior intelligence official", said: "The new information is chilling in its scope, in its detail, in its breadth. It also gives a sense, the same feeling one would have if one found that somebody broke into your house and over the past several months was taking a lot of details about your place of residence and looking for ways to attack."

The official added: "[The information demonstrates] al-Qa'ida is meticulous in its efforts and since 9/11 there has been an effort made to ensure that they have the information that they need in order to carry out attacks."

The Washington Post , one of many newspapers to carry the claims, yesterday quoted one senior law enforcement official briefed on the intelligence who said: "There is nothing right now that we're hearing that is new. Why did we go to this level? I still don't know that."

The alert on Sunday resulted in a rapid upgrading of security at the five institutions identified as al-Qa'ida targets: the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington, the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup in New York and the Prudential Financial building in Newark, New Jersey. In Washington, police closed roads around the Capitol and put armed officers on the underground, while, in New York, roads and bridges were closed to certain vehicles because the national security level was raised to "orange" (high).

Those restrictions remained in place yesterday, despite the admission that the information on which they were based was not new.

The Washington police chief, Charles Ramsey, said the new measures may stay in place at least until after the November presidential election.

Since the Democrats and their candidate in November's presidential election, John Kerry, want to appear tough on security issues, few senior figures are prepared to publicly criticise the Bush administration.

For its part, the White House was still insisting yesterday that the three-year-old information was detailed and "chilling". The spokesman, Scott McClellan, said: "I think you have to keep in mind al-Qa'ida's history of planning attacks well in advance and then updating plans just before attacking."

Many Americans feel sceptical. Jorge Diaz, a building safety worker, told the Reuters news agency he thought the government was overcompensating for failing to give a warning three years ago. He said: "At a certain point it becomes exaggerated.",12271,1275178,00.html

Terror intelligence was years old

Ridge denies warnings were political
Terrorist surveillance 'updated in January'
More suspects held in Pakistan
Statue of Liberty reopens

Mark Oliver
Tuesday August 3, 2004

Much of the seized al-Qaida intelligence that led to the current raised security alert at US financial targets was three or four years old, a US official confirmed today. The official stressed, however, that it may have been updated as recently as six months ago.

Meanwhile, the US homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, denied claims that the Bush administration was choreographing security warnings for reasons of political expediency, as some Democrats have claimed.

On Sunday, US officials revealed that two suspected militants arrested last month in Pakistan were found with computer disks and other data indicating an apparent plot to bomb banks and other American financial targets on the US east coast. The information showed detailed surveillance of apparent targets.

At the weekend there was no indication in the briefings by Mr Ridge and other officials about the age of the intelligence but reports this morning in US newspapers revealed that it pre-dated the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Earlier today Fran Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser, confirmed to NBC television that the surveillance of financial buildings by suspected terrorist plotters was "originally done between 2000 and 2001".

Both Mr Ridge and Ms Townsend stressed that the data should still be taken seriously and that there was evidence that some of the information discovered had been updated as recently as this January.

One senior government official told the New York Times: "You could say that the bulk of this information is old, but we know that al-Qaida collects, collects, collects until they're comfortable ... only then do they carry out an operation."

But the revelation about the age of the intelligence - and the fact that this was not made immediately made clear on Sunday - has provided ammunition for George Bush's political opponents. Some of these have accused his administration of manipulating the colour-coded terror warning system introduced after 9/11. Analysts believe the "war on terror" will be the key issue in November's presidential elections.

Senator John Kerry, the Democrats' presidential challenger, has distanced himself from claims of bad faith from the White House about the warnings but other Bush critics point to the fact the president is trailing in the polls after the Democrats' successful convention last week.

Speaking at a press conference in New York today, Mr Ridge was pressed on the timing of the latest alert. He said: "We do not do politics at the department of homeland security. Our job is to identify the threat."

Ms Townsend noted that the US authorities had only recently received the intelligence from Pakistan. "We've only gotten the intelligence, I would say, in the last 72 hours," she said.

The suspects were arrested in mid-July. They are computer engineer Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan and Khalfan Ghailani, who is wanted in connection with al-Qaida attacks on US embassies in east Africa in 1998. The US government announced on Sunday that terrorists had recently observed the stock exchange and the Citigroup Centre in Manhattan, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank buildings in Washington, and Prudential Financial's headquarters in Newark, New Jersey. Security in all these areas has been raised.

Mr Bush yesterday described the US as a "nation in danger" and announced that he would accede, with some changes, to the 9/11 commission's recommendations for a new director of national intelligence and a new centre for national intelligence to improve the apparently dysfunctional relationship between domestic and international spy agencies.

Pakistani authorities today said they had arrested two more senior al-Qaida suspects, one with a multimillion-dollar US bounty on his head. Officials said the suspects were of African origin but declined to name them.

Pakistan's interior minister, Faisal Saleh Hayyat, said the arrests were another breakthrough after last month's capture of Ghailini.

US officials have said that the arrests of Khan and Ghailani yielded the most specific domestic terrorism warnings since the 2001 attacks although there was no potential timeframe for an attack.

The Pakistani information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, said the files also revealed targets in the UK. The British government was under pressure today to be as explicit about the nature of the intelligence as Washington has been.

Many workers in New York, New Jersey and Washington were yesterday confronted with ID checks and bag searches as they headed for work. Officials sealed off some streets in New York, put financial employees in Washington through extra security checks, and added concrete barricades and a heavily armed presence in Newark.

Police said the restrictions would remain in effect today and would be reviewed daily. Mr Ridge, along with the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, were meeting financial executives from affected companies to discuss security concerns.

The chairman and CEO of Prudential, Arthur Ryan, reported that customers were not fleeing and that the "overwhelming majority" of employees reported to work yesterday. "Everything we've heard so far has been reinforcing. 'We're with you.' That's basically what we've heard from most of them," Mr Ryan said.

Security measures were also heightened in central Los Angeles and in the Century City complex where LA's high-rise buildings and financial institutions are located, although mayor James Hahn said there was no indication of a threat against the city.

Also today, the Statue of Liberty reopened to the public for the first time since it was shut down after 9/11.

"This beacon of hope and liberty is once again open to the public, sending a reassuring message to the world that freedom is alive in New York and shining brighter than ever before," New York governor George Pataki said at the opening ceremony.

Visitors can tour a reopened museum inside the pedestal and enjoy a panoramic view from the observation deck at the pedestal top. The rest of the statue continues to be off-limits because it cannot accommodate large numbers of tourists and does not meet safety codes.

Tightened security measures at the 118-year-old national monument include a new anti-bomb detection device that blows air into clothing and then checks for particles of explosive residue.

Interactive guide
US government terror threat alert levels

Related articles
03.08.2004: We are a nation in danger - Bush
03.08.2004: Reveal terror threat, Blair urged

Related special reports
United States
Attack on America

Useful links
FBI alert
Office of Homeland Security