By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
President Obama will make his first visit to the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean on Tuesday morning, telling intelligence officials that their recent successes have proved how effectively multiple agencies can perform when they work in concert.
The White House has been charting a delicate course as it attempts to turn the page on Bush-era anti-terrorism policies. Even as Obama wages a war in Afghanistan that he has called critical to curbing terrorism, his administration is trying to defend itself from criticism by former vice president Richard B. Cheney and other Republicans for casting aside what they say are critical tools for protecting the United States.
Obama aides pointed to the events leading up to the recent arrest of Najibullah Zazi as a prime example of what they say is the president's deep involvement in anti-terrorism efforts. In late August, shortly after federal agents began tracking the movements of the suspected terrorist in Colorado, senior officials added the case to Obama's daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office.
Agents had only fragmented information about Zazi at that point, administration officials said. But the case quickly piqued Obama's curiosity and led to what aides called an intensive three-week White House focus on the case.
The 24-year-old Afghan immigrant was arrested last month, accused of seeking to build bombs on U.S. soil after attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan. Investigators think Zazi was "entering the execution phase" of a bombing plot, a senior administration official said over the weekend, possibly timed to coincide with the president's trip to New York for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly or the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Although they think that any threat was removed with Zazi's arrest, officials said further arrests are possible. "We're not done," a senior administration official said.
But already, Obama's approach to the first major terrorist threat made public during his presidency is becoming more clear.
In interviews, senior Obama officials stressed their efforts to set a different tone than the previous administration; the White House says it avoided trumpeting either the elevated threat level or the averted crisis, while portraying Obama as highly involved in monitoring developments. As Zazi drove across the country under heavy surveillance, John O. Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, briefed the president three to four times a day on Zazi's activities .
Shortly after taking office, Obama discarded the term "global war on terror," along with some of its most controversial tools, and aides describe a president who has been deliberative in implementing his own security policy. He has come under fire for not abandoning some of George W. Bush's policies, such as warrantless wiretapping and rendition, and faced criticism for jettisoning others, including enhanced interrogation techniques and secret prisons.
At the same time, the Obama administration is pressing Congress to move swiftly to reauthorize three provisions of the USA Patriot Act set to expire in late December. They include the use of "roving wiretaps" to track movement, e-mail and phone communications, a tool that federal officials used in the weeks leading up to Zazi's arrest.
With the apprehension of Zazi, as well as several other covert operations at home and abroad, the Obama administration is increasingly confident that it has struck a balance between protecting civil liberties, honoring international law and safeguarding the country.
"The Zazi case was the first test of this administration being able to successfully uncover and deal with this type of threat in the United States," a senior administration official said. "It demonstrated that we were able to successfully neutralize this threat, and to have insight into it, with existing statutory authorities, with the system as it currently operates."
In addition to monitoring Zazi -- who pleaded not guilty last week in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn to charges of conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction -- Obama was receiving frequent briefings on overseas operations to eliminate al-Qaeda leaders, most notably in Somalia and Indonesia.
But domestically, the Zazi case dominated the president's attention after he learned about it in August, aides said.
Each day around 9 a.m., Obama convenes a group that generally includes Brennan, national security adviser James L. Jones, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, deputy national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough, Vice President Biden, and Biden national security adviser Tony Blinken.
On the morning when Obama was first told about a young man suspected of gathering bomb-making materials outside Denver, the note on Zazi was brief, officials said. "It was not alarmist, but it caught your eye," one senior administration official said.
Although there have been reports that authorities in Pakistan took notice of Zazi when he made a trip there in 2008, senior administration officials said they were not aware of him as a potential threat immediately after he returned to the United States on Jan. 15 of this year. "We became aware of it in late August, while he was in Colorado," one senior official said.
The official said Obama was made aware of Zazi's movements "within 24 hours of when we realized what Zazi was engaged in." Prosecutors allege that Zazi bought large quantities of beauty supplies containing ingredients that can be used to make homemade bombs.
With local and federal authorities on high alert, Zazi began driving from Colorado to New York on Sept. 9, prompting officials from the local police to the White House to pay close attention. "That was a very dynamic situation," a senior administration official said. "We were watching it very carefully. We didn't know if he was going there to carry out an attack. This was a situation where we were watching it unfold."
Reaching the George Washington Bridge on his way into New York, Zazi was stopped by police at what he thought was a random drug checkpoint but was actually a stop orchestrated to monitor his moves. At the White House, meanwhile, Brennan informed Obama and other senior aides about developments, linking them to other events in the intelligence pipeline to see if there might be a connection.
"Obviously, one of the concerns we always have is, 'Is there a coordinated effort on the part of al-Qaeda to carry out multiple attacks?' -- which is what they have done in the past," a senior administration official said. "Not only were we looking at Zazi, but also looking at other things that might be related, and trying to correlate it."
After arriving in New York, Zazi reportedly contacted a man he had known growing up in Queens and said he was worried that he was being followed. The Queens man, after being questioned by police, reportedly later tipped off Zazi that he was, in fact, under surveillance. Zazi flew back to Colorado and was arrested.
With Zazi's arrest, administration officials said they had a renewed sense of confidence that they could approach security threats in a new way. "The system probably worked the way it did before, but we made a conscious decision not to have a big press conference" about Zazi's arrest, a senior official said.
Staff researcher Julie Tate and staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.