In U.S., Terrorism's Peril Undiminished

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Late last year, in secret, the Bush administration erected a provisional defense against nuclear terrorism in the nation's capital.

It was called "Ring Around Washington," and it aimed to detect a nuclear or radiological bomb before the weapon could be used. Still under development, according to three knowledgeable sources, the system was pressed into service in a large-scale operational trial. Scientists placed a grid of radiation sensors in the District and at major points of approach by river and road. Vehicles patrolled with mobile sensors. And an elite combat unit from the Joint Special Operations Command, already trained to render harmless a nuclear weapon or its components, moved to heightened alert at a staging area near the capital.

Ring Around Washington has since been shut down, the sources said. Under some conditions, which The Washington Post will not describe, the neutron and gamma ray detectors failed to identify dangerous radiation signatures. In other conditions they raised false alarms over low-grade medical waste and the ordinary background emissions of stone monuments. The Energy Department's national laboratories "learned a lot about how to operate" a distributed network of sensors, one official said, but not enough to keep it in place.

U.S. exposure to ruinous attack, more than 15 months into the war with al Qaeda, remains unbounded. The global campaign launched by President Bush has destroyed Osama bin Laden's Afghan sanctuary, drained his financial resources, scattered his foot soldiers and killed or captured some of his most dangerous lieutenants. But there is nothing in al Qaeda's former arsenal -- nothing it was capable of doing on Sept. 11, 2001 -- that the president's advisers are prepared to say is now beyond the enemy's reach.

The threat of bin Laden's network -- which the White House considers to number perhaps three dozen men at its vital core -- continues in important ways to outpace the national response. Working-level and senior participants in the conflict, many of them interviewed at length, displayed a striking fatalism even when describing their common belief that the United States will eventually prevail. Nearly all of them, when pressed, said they would measure their success by the frequency, not the absence, of mass-casualty attacks against the American homeland.

"They're not 10 feet tall, they're not supermen, and in a lot of cases they're very primitive," said retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing, who was President Bush's deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism until July 8, referring to al Qaeda. "But they are probably more capable than before."

One Bush appointee, working full-time in counterterrorism, pointed to Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet's testimony as recently as two months ago that "we were vulnerable to suicidal terrorist attacks and we remain vulnerable to them today." The official said: "With untold billions spent -- money, personnel and blood -- how can we claim any kind of success if we're just as vulnerable as before? It just doesn't balance. It can't balance."

The elements of the U.S. "security deficit," as another current official termed it recently, are varied. In their own fields of responsibility, across a wide range of government functions, nearly all of those interviewed acknowledged laboring under threats for which they have no present answer. In some cases they described the challenge as unavoidable. In others they said they had lost opportunities to respond. In still others, implicitly and explicitly, the officials raised questions about the president's choices in the war on terrorism.

* Thirteen of 20 men that The Post could identify on the government's classified roster of "high value targets" remain unaccounted for. Bush's overriding objective, a high-ranking official at the heart of the effort said Friday, is to capture or kill the small cadre of leaders he sees as uniquely responsible for al Qaeda's potent threat. "We want to get that inner core more than anything," the official said, describing their number as roughly 30. The Post identified the 20 (see box) from interviews and a set of notes made by a participant in the hunt. Called "HVTs" in the argot of government, the 13 men believed at large include four of the five in the uppermost tier. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, in a brief interview for this report, said "we are hunting down systematically members of terrorist networks, but that said, this is not just a numbers game."

* Some of those involved in the hunt said the government lost many and perhaps most of its best chances to kill the top targets in the critical first month of the war in Afghanistan. Disputes at the time over rules of engagement and lines of command, some of which have not been described before, are more significant in retrospect. In October and November 2001, they said, the most wanted enemies were concentrated in Afghanistan. Struggles within the CIA and U.S. Central Command, and between them, prevented operators of the armed Predator drones from opening fire on terrorist targets with Hellfire missiles at least 15 times, according to sources directly involved. The disputes persisted through two changes of the rules of engagement, with more missed opportunities to fire, until spring.

* Now scattered, al Qaeda's network remains capable of global command and control. As it did with box cutters and jetliners on Sept. 11, al Qaeda makes innovative use of ordinary technology to frustrate U.S. efforts to get "inside the plot," the term used by Tenet.

* Of all the uncertainties about al Qaeda operators, the most serious one for the Bush administration is whether there are undiscovered "sleeper cells" now present in the United States. That concern, expressed widely among those interviewed, results from a common belief that there may have been in-country conspirators in the Sept. 11 plot who have not been identified by the FBI. Director Robert S. Mueller III has expressed the view that there were none.

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