U.S. Sees Drop in Terrorist Threats

Capitol Hill resident Robert Lewis, left, shows a picture presented to him by police officers, right, which shows the U.S. Capitol  when security barriers did not exist.
Capitol Hill resident Robert Lewis, left, shows a picture presented to him by police officers, right, which shows the U.S. Capitol when security barriers did not exist. (By Lauren Victoria Burke For The Washington Post)
By Dana Priest and Spencer Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 1, 2005

Reports of credible terrorist threats against the United States are at their lowest level since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to U.S. intelligence officials and federal and state law enforcement authorities.

The intelligence community's daily threat assessment, developed after the terrorist attacks to keep policymakers informed, currently lists, on average, 25 to 50 percent fewer threats against domestic targets than it typically did over the past two years, said one senior counterterrorism official.

A broad cross section of counterterrorism officials believes al Qaeda and like-minded groups, in part frustrated by increased U.S. security measures, are focusing instead on Americans deployed in Iraq, where the groups operate with relative impunity, and on Europe.

Though some are expressing caution and even skepticism, interviews last week with 25 current or recently retired officials also cited progress in counterterrorism operations abroad and a more experienced homeland security apparatus for a general feeling that it is more difficult for terrorists to operate undetected. The officials represent federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies, state and local homeland security departments and the private sector.

"We are breathing easier," said U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer, whose officers guard one of al Qaeda's expressed targets, and who is regularly briefed by the FBI and CIA. "The imminence of a threat seems to have diminished. We're just not as worried as we were a year ago, but we certainly are as vigilant."

"I agree," said John O. Brennan, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told of Gainer's assessment. "Progress has been made."

Brennan also said the initial post-Sept. 11 belief that there were large numbers of sleeper cells in the United States turned out to be "a lot of hyperbole." Some people believed "there was a terrorist under every rock."

But some intelligence analysts caution that the drop-off in terrorist-related planning, communication and movement could be a tactical pause by al Qaeda and related terrorist groups. No one suggests the threat has gone away.

Brennan and others fear most what they are not hearing or seeing, especially the possibility that al Qaeda has acquired chemical or biological weapons and adapted in ways that have evaded detection. Analysts also say a flood of new terrorists motivated by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq may try to travel here and reverse the relative calm of today's environment, as they are doing in Europe.

But for now, most officials acknowledged a change in perception, for the better. Most of these officials declined to speak on the record, for fear, as one put it, "that something will go boom" and the public will blame them for being complacent.

On Jan. 6, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge signaled the change in threat level during his last roundtable discussion with reporters, weeks before he stepped down. Asked to explain the decline in suspected terrorist activity in the prior months, he responded:

"Your characterization of it as being a significantly different threat environment, based on what we historically have heard, is absolutely correct," Ridge said. "So there certainly is a diminution, reduction in the amount of intelligence, and the decibel level is lower."

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