By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 23, 2005
A White House list of 10 terrorist plots disrupted by the United States has confused counterterrorism experts and officials, who say they cannot distinguish between the importance of some incidents on the list and others that were left off.
Intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the White House overstated the gravity of the plots by saying that they had been foiled, when most were far from ready to be executed. Others noted that the nation's color-coded threat index was not raised from yellow, or "elevated" risk of attack, to orange, or "high" risk, for most of the time covered by the incidents on the list.
The president made it "sound like well-hatched plans," said a former CIA official involved in counterterrorism during that period. "I don't think they fall into that category."
President Bush announced the list of attacks on Oct. 6, describing them as serious al Qaeda terrorist plots disrupted by the United States and its allies since Sept. 11, 2001. The document included never-before-disclosed plans to use hijacked commercial airliners to attack the East and West coasts in 2002 and 2003.
Three of the 10 plots were aimed at U.S. soil, and the government also halted five al Qaeda efforts to case possible targets or infiltrate operatives into the country.
Counterterrorism experts said they could not explain why some of the U.S. government's bigger successes did not make the list, including the thwarted attack by Richard Reid, who tried to set off explosives in his shoes aboard a transatlantic flight in December 2001, and the capture a year later of Ali Saleh Kahlah Marri, a graduate student at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., who officials believe had ties to Sept. 11 terrorists.
"We don't know how they came to the conclusions they came to," said one counterterrorism official, who spoke anonymously for fear of angering the White House. "It's safe to say that most of the [intelligence] community doesn't think it's worth very much."
The White House said the incidents were compiled by the U.S. "intelligence community" and most had already been mentioned in public, either in media accounts or when arrests were made. A spokesman for the National Security Council, which reviewed each of the plots before the list was released, declined to say whether the incidents represent the most serious threats or explain why other incidents that required more disruptive security measures did not make the list.
"The gradations of seriousness is not something I've looked into," said Fred Jones, an NSC spokesman. The intelligence community "takes them all very seriously," he said.
Terror analysts said the list contained some plots that were clearly disrupted, such as a two-pronged 2003 plot to attack Heathrow Airport using hijacked commercial airplanes and a mortar assault on a departing plane. The idea was hatched by Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who has been in custody since 2003.
In another plot on the White House list, British authorities, with the aid of U.S. officials, arrested eight men in March 2004 who had collected ammonium nitrate fertilizer in a storage facility. The material can be used to make bombs, and police believe that the men were planning to target London buses and nightclubs.
Along with its list of 10 plots, the White House also released a list of five "casings and infiltrations." One of them involved a Baltimore man, Majid Khan, who was apparently assigned by Mohammed to collect information about gas stations, with the idea of detonating explosives in the stations' underground storage tanks.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales declined to discuss the White House-produced list in detail or whether the Justice Department was consulted in its formation. "The fact that they're not on that list doesn't mean those other successes weren't important," Gonzales said.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to multiple requests for comment. During most of the domestic plots on the White House list, the threat index remained at yellow. For example, one of the newly disclosed attacks was a disrupted mid-2002 plot to use aircraft hijacked overseas to target the Library Tower in Los Angeles.
During the summer of 2002, the Department of Homeland Security did not raise the threat level. U.S. officials issued warnings about possible terrorist attacks, but none involved hijacking commercial airplanes.
That summer, the FBI issued a warning about threats to use fuel trucks to attack Jewish schools or synagogues, small airplanes to carry out suicide attacks in the United States, terrorists allegedly trying to obtain "offensive scuba diver capability," and a general warning about landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge.
"The problem with these lists is that we don't know the criteria," said Bruce Hoffman, a Rand Corp. terrorism expert. When the incidents do not correspond to elevated threat levels, "it runs the risk of 'Were we just crying wolf then?' This is animpressive compendium of actual attacks, but what about the other ones?"
One well-known series of events not on the list is the terror threat over the New Year's holiday in 2003-2004, when the U.S. government took the unprecedented step of canceling dozens of commercial airline flights from London and Paris over concerns that terrorists were targeting specific flights.
But that may be because the threat was later discounted, according to intelligence officials. A CIA contractor at the time had analyzed bar codes on al-Jazeera network videotapes and concluded that the codes could be flight numbers targeted by terrorists, former intelligence officials said.
One former official, David Stone, who served as chief of the Transportation Security Administration from late 2003 until the spring of 2005, helped coordinate the nation's response to the threat against certain "flights of interest" between Christmas 2003 and New Year's 2004.
The nation's alert level was elevated to orange at the time, and the United States asked Britain and France to cancel U.S.-bound flights from London and Paris at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Passengers on flights that did take off were heavily screened before departure and upon arrival. The incident strained relations between the United States and Britain, France and Mexico as U.S. officials pushed those reluctant countries to put armed air marshals aboard flights.
Stone and other top TSA officials were not made aware that the intelligence used to take these actions was later discounted.
The high-profile concern over "flights of interest" was based upon analysis completed by a CIA contractor that said it found specific flight numbers embedded in bar codes on videotapes of al-Jazeera broadcasts, according to former and current intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. One of the bar codes was numerically identical to the date of an attack on Istanbul, so the contractor's analysis of other bar codes convinced CIA officials that the other codes signified flight numbers, intelligence officials said.
Staff reporters Dan Eggen, Dana Priest, Spencer S. Hsu and Dafna Linzer and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.