Bush administration officials acknowledged yesterday that the latest terrorism alert was based primarily on information that is three to four years old, but they aggressively defended the decision to warn financial sectors in Washington, New York and Newark because of the continuing threat posed by al Qaeda.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said at a news conference in New York that while much of the intelligence that led to the alert was dated, authorities were alarmed by evidence that al Qaeda computer files obtained last week had been updated as recently as January.
A police officer stands guard with an automatic weapon outside the New York Stock Exchange, one of the buildings that al Qaeda has surveilled.
(Richard Drew -- AP)
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"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," Ridge said, adding: "When you see this kind of detailed planning, you have to take preemptive action."
Ridge's comments came after reports that the surveillance of five financial institutions in the three cities by al Qaeda operatives occurred as long as four years ago and that authorities were unsure whether it had continued since 2001. U.S. officials raised the terrorist threat level to orange -- or "high risk of terrorist attacks" -- on Sunday for financial services sectors in the three cities, suggesting initially that the plot was believed to be ongoing.
The debate over the surveillance information is the latest controversy over the administration's system of color-coded threat alerts, which have been criticized as vague and difficult for local officials and the public to act upon. The alert Ridge issued on Sunday, however, was narrowly targeted and based in large part on information that al Qaeda operatives had surveilled five buildings: 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.
But authorities did not publicly make it clear until yesterday that the information compiled during that surveillance, contained on computer disks and documents seized during raids in Pakistan, was created in 2000 and 2001 or, in some cases, undated. Much of the information was also obtained from the Internet or other public sources, officials said.
Authorities issued somewhat conflicting signals yesterday about the timing of the surveillance. Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House deputy national security adviser for terrorism, said in a television interview that "the casings were done in 2000 and 2001." Ridge said the information "might be two or three years old," adding that "there's no evidence of recent surveillance."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan, meanwhile, told reporters that "it's wrong and plain irresponsible to suggest that [the alert] was based on old information."
Two senior intelligence officials stressed yesterday that the U.S. government has information from interrogations of recently captured al Qaeda operatives and other seized documents that buttresses the assertion that U.S. financial sites, possibly including the five buildings, were targeted for attack.
The pre-Sept. 11 computer files "are corroborated by other intelligence of strong credibility that is of a very, very current nature," one of the officials said, referring to intelligence from detainee interrogations and other documents.
One said the government has "very, very recent information showing a clear terrorist intent related to planning attacks," and said the computer files related to the casings are "part of a larger package of information we gained access to." Taken together, the information makes clear that "this is not information for information's sake," one of the officials said. "The context is attacking."
The two senior officials defended their explanation of the orange alert Sunday, saying it referred to the computer files from 2000 and 2001 and to several more current streams of intelligence.
"We were doing what we thought was our job, to uphold our sworn duty to protect people, and now we're being criticized for doing it," one official added. "The detail and specificity of the [computer] reports was so striking and dramatic that we felt we had no choice" but to consider releasing it.
Law enforcement officials, who declined to be identified because classified information is involved, said the earliest entry in the surveillance documents found on the computer was January 2000. U.S. officials are attempting to determine the age of some recovered paper documents.