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Nation Put on Higher Threat Alert (Feb. 8)
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Politics: The Justice Department
With Daniel Eggen
Washington Post Justice Department Reporter

Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

The government raised the terrorist threat index on Friday for only the second time, warning that newly acquired intelligence indicates a "high risk" of attacks by the al Qaeda terrorist network against U.S. targets at home and abroad.

Washington Post reporter Daniel Eggen was online to take questions and comments on the Justice Department and the terrorist threat index.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Daniel Eggen: Good afternoon. My name is Dan Eggen, and I cover the Justice Department, FBI and related agencies. For the past 17 months, that has primarily meant a focus on terrorism, and I expect that to be the focus of our discussion today.

Silver Spring, Md.: Raising the level of awareness is OK, but then what are we the people to do? We are increasingly becoming a confused people, and it is clear that Bin Laden and his cronies are laughing at our confused state. Where do we go from here?

Daniel Eggen: That is a very good question, and it's one the government is clearly struggling to answer. I think it's still unclear how successful their warnings have been. The Department of Homeland Security sought to deal with some of the criticism yesterday by giving people specific advice, including urging them to stock up on water, duct tape, plastic sheeting, etc. But I think it's fairly clear that has only confused many people further.

I'm not sure how much bin Laden and his associates are laughing at us, however. Our military and law enforcement agencies have clearly disrupted their operations and ambitions severely.

Wheaton, Md.: I really don't see the added value of this color threat warning system. The advice given to the average citizen is relevant at any time. Security is not meant to be reactionary. Reaction is for law enforcement and the military. For security, any credible, specific threat should be given the appropriate response. Other than that, an effective, practical security program should be implemented consistently at all times. Making security more costly, more intrusive and more inconvenient does not make it more effective.

Daniel Eggen: You make an interesting point, but the color-code system seems to be with us for better or worse. I think that many fair-minded people can make legitimate points of criticism in the way the system has been handled so far, however.

For example, many of us in the press have noted that, even under the latest and somewhat detailed warning, the public is given little solid information to judge the risk for themselves. In part this is for obvious security reasons, but it's also true that some information--such as the specific concern about New York and Washington--has leaked out in subsequent press reports, rather than being highlighted by Attorney General Ashcroft, Homeland Security secretary Ridge and others.

Washington, D.C.: Is duct tape and plastic sheeting on my windows really going to protect me from a biological or chemical threat? Call me cynical, but I smell a government plot to scare the public in order to drum up support for the case for war in Iraq.

Daniel Eggen: The plastic sheeting-and-duct-tape message has obviously provoked an immediate response, a lot of it negative. But I will say that, for those of us who have been covering the various alerts and warnings over the last 17 months, the government is clearly extremely concerned about the latest intelligence reports, perhaps more concerned than they have been since 9/11. The focus of the information, as CIA director Tenet reiterated today in Senate testimony, is on alleged plots to use chemical, biological or radiological ("dirty nukes") weapons.

This is why the preparedness message yesterday included the plastic sheeting, etc. I also can tell you that government officials are frustrated by what they see as two different criticisms: that they're not telling the public enough, or that they're telling them too much.

Rockville, Md.: If the government knew about a specific target, do you think any more effort would be made to protect the people in or around that target, or would there still be this blanket precautionary statement?

Daniel Eggen: Numerous officials, from the AG to the FBI director on down, have repeatedly said that a specific threat would prompt a specific response. They've been quite adamant on that point.

Minneapolis, Minn.: Following testimony by Mueller and Tenet today, Sen. John Edwards said he would introduce legislation to move counterterrorism and counterintelligence duties from the FBI to another agency. What are the chances of this happening?

washingtonpost.com: CIA Chief Says Al Qaeda Still a Threat (AP, Feb. 11, 2003)

Daniel Eggen: As it stands now, the chances appear to be diminished, although Sen. Edwards and others on the Hill seem willing to push the issue.

Late last year, there was a lot of buzz because Condi Rice and other senior national security officials had seriously discussed the possibility of a domestic intelligence agency, perhaps akin to Britain's MI5.

But the FBI and its director, Robert Mueller, have engaged in weeks of lobbying on the Hill and in the White House arguing against the idea. This appears to have tamped down enthusiasm for the idea within the administration, and that certainly decreases any chance of meaningful legislation.

Washington, D.C.: Thanks for taking questions.

Have you been covering the Justice Department for long? Have you noticed any changes since you have been there?

Daniel Eggen: I have covered Justice since the last few weeks of the Reno years. The biggest change in DOJ was 9/11, which made Ashcroft a much more significant figure in national affairs and dramatically changed the focus of every agency w/in DOJ.

What hasn't changed is that DOJ is a very insular and closed place, which certainly poses a challenge for those of us in the press!

Orono, Maine: Isn't there a danger that all of these terror alerts will lead to a "boy who cried wolf" scenario -- where people will eventually get so sick of the false warnings, they'll ignore them and fail to respond to a threat that is genuine?

Daniel Eggen: There is already a fear that that will happen or, perhaps, already has. Earlier last week, when the surge in alarming intelligence information was first leaking out publicly, there was a great debate within intelligence circles over whether to raise the threat level and issue a public alert, or whether to confine it to law enforcement. Obviously, concern over the types of reports the FBI, CIA and other agencies were getting overruled arguments that the threat was not specific enough.

Washington, D.C.: As I recall, the public was very upset when the government did not report knowledge of pre 9/11 attacks. Now the government is preparing us, especially the ones who have been avoiding the warnings, for the worst. Do you think maybe the public is confused on what they want rather than the government? They are giving us what we asked for, a big heads up!

Daniel Eggen: It's a very good point, and this is exactly why many FBI agents and others I've talked to feel caught between a rock and a hard place on the issue of alerts.

One important point is that these alerts are not predictions, and in fact many officials believe they can serve to disrupt planned attacks by putting terrorists off guard. It's not an enviable situation: Either the warning is right and something terrible happens, or nothing happens and critics say the government overreacted.

Silver Spring, Md.: It looks like authorities are doing well to disrupt the terrorist's activities here and in Europe. Do you think that sleeper cells are as prevalent right now as they were when the September 11 attacks occurred? Is the sleeper cell problem more of a problem in Western Europe than in the U.S.?

Daniel Eggen: The U.S. and its allies have undoubtedly disrupted al Qaeda and have broken up numerous cells associated with the group. Measuring what's left is more difficult, but the signs are not all that encouraging, to be honest.

Just this morning, the FBI director told the Senate intelligence committee that the bureau has identified "several hundred" extremists linked to al Qaeda here in the United States. He also warned that some of them could be called upon quickly to launch attacks. Obviously this is not an optimistic assessment.

Alexandria, Va.: If a terrorist plot were foiled, do you think we'd hear about it? We don't seem to get much specific information about attacks that have been prevented.

Daniel Eggen: Most of the time, we do not hear about it, and that makes it all the more difficult for those of us in the public to judge any successes and shortcomings.

Mueller, the FBI director, has said in the past that about 100 plots have been thwarted worldwide since 9/11, but we don't have details on many of them. Some cases do come to light when there are arrests and prosecutions, however, such as the arrests connected to the recent ricin plot in London.

Vienna, Va.: It is nice for the Dept. of Homeland Security to issue preparedness recommendations for home but what about schools and the workplace? Shouldn't they follow the same precautions? I see little to no response in this area. Our vending machines here at work don't carry a three day supply of food.

Daniel Eggen: That's an interesting point. Maybe someone from DHS is listening in and will make note of it!

Arlington, Va.: A comment on the preparedness measures -- a friend stopped by Home Depot today and noticed a run on plastic sheeting and duct tape. The problem raised by some health experts in my office though, is that the guidance was very vague and told people to buy it, without telling them to only use it if directed to. There's a strong possibility that a large family hiding out in a small well-taped/sheeted room could run out of oxygen very quickly (5 hours to a day, depending on size of room, number of people).

Daniel Eggen: This raises one of the key problems that many people have with the government's efforts so far: a lack of organization. One minute we are supposed to carry on as usual, while the next we have to stock up on supplies. I think it's very confusing to people in general, and I think the government is still feeling its way on the issue.

Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: If the threat is that imminent, why aren't there more restrictions? I don't get it. If they're seriously worried that someone will explode a radiological bomb in the nation's capital, why aren't there, say, roadblocks, or why aren't people screened at Metro Stations. What in the world is to prevent someone from putting the nasty stuff in their car and driving it into the center of the city? Nothing! Yet this would be a devastating situation. Given that risk, that so very little appears to be happening in the form of real prevention leads me to believe the threat really isn't that serious.

Second question: what's with the obsession with Muslim holidays as times of possible terrorist action? It doesn't seem to matter that much, if you consider the terrorist acts of the last few years. Thanks a lot for the chat.

Daniel Eggen: Both good questions.

First, the problem with the latest intelligence, as far as we can gather, is that it is not specific as to time, place or location.

In other words, they don't have sources telling them a dirty nuke will explode in Georgetown on Wednesday; they have sources telling them that al Qaeda would like to explode a dirty nuke in the United States, and maybe hit landmarks. (Note: This is merely an illustration.)

So the challenge is to gear up just in case someone tries something, but not to shut things down entirely because there's not enough specificity to do so. That is why there was a great deal of debate before the threat level was raised.

As for the second question, everyone I've talked to has insisted that this is what intelligence sources--detainees, intercepts, etc.--have indicated as a possible timeline. But you raise a very good point: None of the major plots, with the exception of the botched Millennium attempt, have revolved around Western or Muslim holidays per se. Al Qaeda's timing tends to revolve around strategic factors.

Washington, D.C.: I want the government to be specific with regard to what precautions I can take to safeguard my family. I think that the threat warning needs to be updated for the Washington and New York areas. What do you think?

Daniel Eggen: It's hard for me to judge, but I will say that I think it's unfortunate that the particular concerns about Washington and New York are leaked out rather than addressed head-on by policymakers.

Jessup, Md.: Why does the government have a high chain link fence and barbed wire around the Department of Justice building in downtown D.C.? Do they really believe this precaution is necessary, effective and outweighs the appearance that we have become a panicked and paranoid national security state?

Daniel Eggen: The chain-link fence is part of an ongoing renovation at the DOJ building. But I've gotten this question a lot given the times we're in.

Gaithersburg, Md.: Maybe tough to answer accurately, but is the alert system and attendant announcements simply making visible what has been going on for some years now? In other words, is it just that the public is being told what government has been dealing with all along or are we being confronted with a new breed of threat, as it were? Thanks.

Daniel Eggen: In part, you are correct. Prior to 9/11, there was no alert system, of course, and threats were communicated through the State Department, FBI, etc., to embassies and law enforcement agencies rather than the public. The 9/11 attacks changed the rules and, in some respects, lowered the threshold for what is considered risky.

Washington, D.C.: For an experienced journalist, it is disappointing but not surprising that you appear to be making excuses for the Administration here. It's true that they are stuck between a rock and a hard place, but that's no reason to come up with this CYA warning system. If an attack occurs after a vague warning they don't pass on, sure some will point the finger, but that does not justify this policy. This is not making us safer. Please dig deeper and be more critical.

Daniel Eggen: I was merely reflecting what policymakers and government officials are saying about these decisions. Whether or not its a CYA exercise is for you and the rest of the public to decide. I've written about plenty of criticism of the alert system and pretty much every other aspect of U.S. anti-terrorism programs.

Boston, Mass.: Mr. Eggen,

If there were to be another attack, do you think the mood of the public would be that we are paying too much attention to Iraq, and not enough to al-Qaeda?

Daniel Eggen: Many Democrats on Capitol Hill have been making that point already. The administration argues that rogue states like Iraq and terrorist groups like al Qaeda thrive together. I think it's safe to say they're having trouble making that case to the rest of the world.

Germantown, Md.: Mr. Eggen: Curious to know if the information that you have received while interviewing for stories on your beat has convinced you personally to stock pile supplies and have a plan of escape, etc.?

Daniel Eggen: Perhaps owing to my Midwestern roots, I try not to get too agitated about the possibilities. But I also try to be prudent, and some of the advice given yesterday is good preparation for any disaster, natural or otherwise.

But there is no bomb shelter in my backyard yet.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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