The one consistent theme of the intelligence was that the possible targets are Washington and New York.
Frances Fragos Townsend, the top counterterrorism official in the George W. Bush administration, said the terms used to describe the possible danger may have inadvertently sown confusion among the public. Townsend, who was briefed twice by senior government officials, said the quality of the information suggested that the threat was “plausible” but needed further corroboration.
“There are lots of things that are deemed ‘plausible’ that turn out not to be real,” Townsend said. She said the officials who are briefing policymakers were “leaning forward on their skis. But nobody gets in trouble for being forward-leaning.”
One federal law enforcement official concurred, saying that in the post-Sept. 11 era, the government always errs on the side of caution — and especially with the anniversary approaching.
“Given the dates that are coming up, nobody wants to underplay anything,’’ said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the threat information was not public. “The government is going to do everything it can to run this to the ground and assess its accuracy.’’
In the treasure-trove of digital and handwritten materials found at bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in May, there were numerous references to the anniversary. The material also contained various inchoate ideas about how al-Qaeda might construct a terrorist operation, according to law enforcement and intelligence officials.
“The United States government has already significantly enhanced its security posture in advance of the 9/11 anniversary to protect the country against possible terrorist threats,’’ said a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the intelligence was not public. “Nevertheless, the president directed the counterterrorism community to redouble its efforts in response to this credible but unconfirmed information.”
Staff writers Joby Warrick, Peter Finn, Clarence Williams and Colum Lynch contributed to this report.
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