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.
More than half a dozen government officials interviewed yesterday, who declined to be identified because classified information is involved, said that most, if not all, of the information about the buildings seized by authorities in a raid in Pakistan last week was about three years old, and possibly older.
Metro Transit Police officers gather outside the Farragut West station in downtown Washington as part of the stepped-up security prompted by the new alert.
(Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
Live, 1 p.m. ET: The Post's Dan Eggen will be online to discuss the latest terror alert warning.
"There is nothing right now that we're hearing that is new," said one senior law enforcement official who was briefed on the alert. "Why did we go to this level? . . . I still don't know that."
One piece of information on one building, which intelligence officials would not name, appears to have been updated in a computer file as late as January 2004, according to a senior intelligence official. But officials could not say yesterday whether that piece of data was the result of active surveillance by al Qaeda or came instead from information about the buildings that is publicly available.
Many administration officials stressed yesterday that even three-year-old intelligence, when coupled with other information about al Qaeda's plans to attack the United States, justified the massive security response in the three cities. Police and other security teams have been assigned to provide extra protection for the surveilled buildings, identified as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank headquarters in Washington; the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup Center in New York; and the Prudential Financial building in Newark.
Intelligence officials said that the remarkably detailed information about the surveillance -- which included logs of pedestrian traffic and notes on the types of explosives that might work best against each target -- was evaluated in light of general intelligence reports received this summer indicating that al Qaeda hopes to strike a U.S. target before the November presidential elections.
Several officials also said that much of the information compiled by terrorist operatives about the buildings in Washington, New York and Newark was obtained through the Internet or other "open sources" available to the general public, including some floor plans.
The characterization of the age of the intelligence yesterday cast a new light on Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's announcement Sunday that the terrorism threat alert for the financial services sectors in the three cities had been raised. Ridge and other officials stressed Sunday the urgency of acting on the newly obtained information, but yesterday a range of officials made clear how dated much of the intelligence was.
One senior intelligence official said the information is still being evaluated.
A number of other buildings were mentioned in the seized computer files, but only in vague references, so officials decided not to issue alerts about them, an intelligence official said. They included the Bank of America building in San Francisco; the Nasdaq and American Stock Exchange buildings in New York, as well as two other sites in that city; and an undisclosed building in Washington and another in New Jersey.
"We chose not to release it because we decided they weren't anywhere near the same level of danger as the others," the official said.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney said in separate appearances yesterday that the new alert underscores the continuing threat posed by al Qaeda. At a news conference announcing his proposed intelligence reforms, Bush said the alert shows "there's an enemy which hates what we stand for."
"It's serious business," Bush said. "I mean, we wouldn't be, you know, contacting authorities at the local level unless something was real."
Employees at announced targets in New York and New Jersey arrived at work yesterday with a mix of defiance and jitters. Some said they wanted to send a message that terrorists could not deter them from living their lives as usual. Others were visibly shaken by the presence of heavily armed police officers and new barricades.