It has all the makings of an incendiary story: a chilling pre-election videotape featuring a supposed member of al Qaeda, declaring in English that "blood will run red in the streets of America."
The problem, say ABC News executives, is that they can't determine whether the tape, obtained by a producer, involves a real threat -- or even the identity of the figure on it, a man wearing an ammunition belt and a headdress that obscures his face. The network enlisted the aid of the FBI and CIA but still can't authenticate the 75-minute videotape.
"We're not quite there to broadcast something that would be quite frightening," investigative reporter Brian Ross said yesterday. "I'd love to have the exclusive, but first we'd like to get it right."
ABC was put in the awkward position of defending its insistence on fully checking out the story after the Drudge Report posted a huge online headline: "ABC News Holds Terror Warning Tape."
A network producer obtained the tape over the weekend from an intermediary in Pakistan -- who charged a $500 transportation fee -- and ABC's New York headquarters got a feed of the video Monday, network executives said. They said they sent copies to the FBI and CIA, which have been unable to identify the speaker -- who says he is an American and is brandishing automatic weapons -- after comparing his voice to those of known terrorists. ABC hired two linguists who concluded that English was not the speaker's native tongue. For example, he cited the country of Yemen as "the Yemen."
"The dilemma is that we have an individual identified only as 'Assam the American' -- we have no idea who that is," said Christopher Isham, ABC's chief of investigative projects. The unidentified man addresses his threats to "my fellow countrymen."
In weighing the evidence, ABC staffers are mindful of the problem at CBS News, which has apologized for rushing on the air with disputed documents about President Bush's National Guard service.
Ross and other ABC staffers say they believe that a Bush administration official leaked the story to Internet gossip Matt Drudge as a way of pressuring the network into airing the tape, which would heighten concerns about terrorism in the final week of the president's reelection campaign. They note that whoever gave the information to Drudge had a transcript of the tape.
One counterterrorism official said the tape shows the man "just ranting and raving." Another federal official with knowledge of the matter said that government agencies are pleased that ABC shared the tape and relieved that the network is not airing it while the video is still being evaluated. The CIA is examining the tape virtually day and night, this person said.
The officials, who declined to be identified because the administration is not commenting on the matter, say investigators do not believe the man on the tape is Adam Gadahn, a California-born Muslim convert identified by the FBI in May as an al Qaeda member wanted for questioning.
A U.S. intelligence official said it is possible the tape was produced by an al Qaeda unit called Sahab Production Committee because the video bears the committee's recognizable logo and has been edited and spliced. The official called it "classic al Qaeda propaganda" and said the man on the tape even brings up the issue of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.
The debate may not be over. The officials say a source with access to the tape, apparently impatient with ABC, has offered it to another broadcast news organization, which has called the government for guidance.
Drudge said yesterday that a political motivation behind the leak was "possible," but put the onus on ABC. "They haven't authenticated previous al Qaeda tapes before airing them," he said. "Why are they waiting to authenticate this? It's election week."
But Isham noted that previous videotapes featured Osama bin Laden or other al Qaeda leaders who could be verified by sight.
"It's either a well-done hoax or a tremendous news story," Ross said. "We're not going to get stampeded."
Staff writers John Mintz, Dana Priest and Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.