Most of the al Qaeda surveillance of five financial institutions that led to a new terrorism alert Sunday was conducted before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and authorities are not sure whether the casing of the buildings has continued, numerous intelligence and law enforcement officials said yesterday.
Read the story:Pre-9/11 Acts Led To Alerts (Post, Aug. 3)
Washington Post staff writer Dan Eggen was online Tuesday, Aug. 3., at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the alleged al Qaeda plot to target key U.S. business and government buildings in New York, New Jersey and Washington and analyze what the threat reveals about the terrorists' current and future tactics.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
The politicization of the terror alert based on 3-4 year old information seems like a new low in the War on Terror. Are members of the administration concerned of crying wolf too many times, dulling the public's concern when a real strike might be imminent? Thanks
Dan Eggen: Obviously the administration does not agree that any politicization was involved. But I do think that officials are realizing that this alert was bungled to the extent that authorities did not make clear on Sunday that the specific intelligence about casing buildings was three and four years old. One can still argue in favor of the need for the "orange alert" targeted at financial institutions, while still wishing that the government had been more forthcoming about the evidence.
Dan Eggen: We've had a technical glitch here that caused us to post a question before I even introduced myself. I'm Dan Eggen, and I cover terrorism and law enforcement issues for the Post.
I'll start by noting the news of the morning, which were statements by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge this morning acknowledging that the information related to the surveillance of five buildings in NY, DC and NJ was from 2000 and 2001. With that, let's (officially) start the chat!
I don't understand the implication of your story that just because some of the information is several years old, that somehow reacting to it now is inappropriate. We know from the 9/11 commission that terrorists where plotting to hijack airplanes to be used as weapons as early as 1995. Clearly the fact that some of the information is from an earlier date, doesn't make it outdated.
Dan Eggen: You are absolutely correct. The question here is one of public relations as much as anything else. The point is that for 24 hours after the alert went up, which prompted a massive response of antiterrorism police and other security forces, government officials were circumspect about the timing of the information they had and, in some cases, implied strongly that the surveillance had continued until recently. That does not appear to be the case.
It does not seem unreasonable to expect the government to treat the public like adults and tell them plainly that the specific evidence is old, but we're still worried and here's why.
San Jose, Calif.:
Once again, the homeland security unnecessarily raised the terror alert, causing unneeded concerns, and wasting resources. Sooner or later, no one will take these alerts seriously. What can President Bush do to ensure that future alerts will be more credible than those in the past.
Dan Eggen: I think this is perhaps the most serious ramification of the way this alert was handled. The administration has had consistent trouble in communicating this alerts, and made a conscious decision earlier this year to not do them as often and to make them more targeted and informative. That goal was met this time in part, but perhaps not fully enough.
It seems to me and many like-minded friends that the timing of the terror alert, given the age of the evidence, is highly suspect; it sets news agenda for the week following DNC convention -- putting focus once again on the fear and security issues that are Bush's bread and butter. The politics of this seem amazingly transparent.
In the interviews you conducted for today's story, could you really find no one who would go on record with a similar view?
Dan Eggen: Intelligence and law enforcement types tend to be rather apolitical people, or at least they view themselves that way. But obviously we and other reporters will be probing more fully in the days ahead to try and determine how this alert came about, why it was presented the way it was and whether political considerations entered into it.
I recall hearing a story over the weekend that law enforcement had caught a Pakistani woman who had flown to Mexico from South Africa. She was supposedly trying to sneak in the U.S. via our porous southern border. There was speculation that she was a courier who was bringing in funds to aid in a terrorist plot. That story seemed to have disappeared. What is the story's status at this time, and did this event have anything to do with making the computer files found a few days in Pakistan seem more like an imminent threat?
Dan Eggen: Tom Ridge and other U.S. officials have said publicly that there is no evidence tying this case to the casing of buildings in the Northeast. But obviously the FBI and other agencies are continuing to investigate and her case in general has prompted concerns. Stay tuned.
On the BBC this morning a commentator was applauding the openness of the U.S (in contrast to the British model) while at the same time questioning the urgent tone of the American announcement. I think this highlights the over-simplistic color coding of alerts. Tom Ridge could have announced the new information, worked with local authorities and had the same effect.
Dan Eggen: You make an interesting point. One could also argue that they could even continue with the targeted orange alert, while telling people that much of the information was old and we don't know if any of it is still viable.
Since the 9/11 Commission made recommendations for reorganizing the intelligence community, it seems that both Bush and Kerry are unwisely rushing the process. There have been numerous pieces written by people both in and out of government urging that these decisions be given more careful consideration. We need to make the right choices, not the most politically expedient ones. Is there any chance or inclination for Congress to slow down this process?
Dan Eggen: Good afternoon Lakeland (the Ledger was my first employer out of college).
It appears as if the 9/11 Commission juggernaut is unstoppable, at least to the extent that Congress appears almost certain to pass some kind of reform package this fall. The pressure on President Bush, with the election looming, will be enormous which is why the White House is attempting to grab control of this issue by announcing its own suggested reforms.
Even the members of the 9/11 commission, which I have covered for nearly two years, have been stunned by the overwhelming public response to their findings. It's not often that a 567-page report on national security issues tops the bestseller lists.
Why is it that when Clinton bombed the Sudanese pharmaceutical plants we heard an endless drumbeat of "wag the dog" from the media (as offered by Republicans)?
But when Howard Dean says that Bush is politicizing the terror warnings we hear, "there goes crazy Howard."
And you know, just because the WH feels that they are not politicizing the warnings doesn't make it so. Are you guys that intimidated by them?
Dan Eggen: To take the last question first: I think this morning's tough coverage of this alert pretty much answers your question. As independent reporters, we have to gather evidence before drawing any conclusions about politics etc.
I'll take a pass on the first question, except to note that the 9/11 commission, in a little-noticed passage in its report, found that the "wag the dog" accusations against Clinton were a baseless "slur" that likely had an impact on that administration's ability to pursue future counterterrorism operations.
New York, N.Y.:
I cannot understand why there is so much fear of terrorism. I live three blocks from the world trade center, and every time I hear a terror alert, or see people running out to buy duct tape, I say to myself, what is wrong with these people. Since 2001, more people have been killed in car accidents than by terrorists, why are people not afraid to drive? If the media and the Bush administration would stop with the yellow, orange, red, and the media would stop telling everyone to be afraid, we would all be in a better place. Any thoughts?
Dan Eggen: Certainly there is nothing wrong with keeping some perspective about the actual risks, which are exceedingly low for U.S. citizens as individuals. But 9/11 was a searing, traumatic episode for the United States that still reverberates today.
San Francisco, Calif.:
What is the criteria by which the threat level is raised?
If the threat was a number of years old, why did they
change the level just last week instead of two weeks ago,
a month ago, etc.
With this method of using old threats, should we not also
expect more raisings based on old data?
Dan Eggen: Although the information about surveillance on U.S. buildings came from 2000 and 2001, the U.S. government knew nothing about it until last week when it obtained, through the Pakistanis, a laptop, computer disks and other material seized in raids on al Qaeda safe houses. As one official said yesterday, "It was fresh to us." This may partly explain the breathless nature of the alert announcement.
Aside from the documents and computer files ceased in Pakistan, were there any other indicators -- such as an increase in "chatter" -- that caused the DHS to raise the alert level?
Dan Eggen: Yes, but not related to the five buildings or financial sectors that were formally put on orange alert. The government has been saying for months that there is an intense level of intelligence reporting indicating that al Qaeda, inspired by the effect of the Madrid bombings, wants to carry out an attack in the United States before the November elections.
U.S. officials said that information, combined with the discovery of the older surveillance information, prompted them to go ahead with the alert. I should note they were also concerned because one computer file related to one of the buildings appears to have been opened and possibly edited in Jan. 2004. There is no indication of resumed physical surveillance in NY, DC or NJ however.
Dan Eggen: Well, I'm sorry I couldn't get to more of your great questions, but I'm afraid I must get back to work. Thanks again.