Computer Crime Research Center


Terror Alert: Officials defend choice to announce threat

Date: May 28, 2004
Source: Associated Press
By: Curt Anderson

WASHINGTON - The FBI and Justice Department insist that warning the public about a possibly devastating terror attack in this country was justified by intelligence and may avert a repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks. But some Bush administration officials and lawmakers aren't so sure.

These officials and members of Congress with access to the same intelligence reports said the announcement by Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller was overblown and caused unnecessary public worry.

Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the Ashcroft-Mueller news conference on Wednesday mistakenly led some to believe the nation's threat level had been increased.

He called it "regrettable" that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who made a round of television appearances Wednesday, did not join Ashcroft and Mueller.

"Their separate public appearances left the impression that the broad and close interagency consultation we expect - and which the law requires - may not have taken place in this case," Cox said.

Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse reiterated Thursday that his agency has not seen any change in the "steady stream of threat reporting."

"We do not have any new intelligence or specific information about al-Qaida planning an attack," he said.

Cassandra Chandler, assistant FBI director for public affairs, acknowledged intelligence about the threat has been coming in for some time. However, she said it now is being backed by a higher degree of corroboration and that its sheer volume was noteworthy.

She said the announcement was intended to demonstrate to Americans and the world that the FBI was focused on trying to thwart an attack. "This clearly demonstrates our commitment to prevention," Chandler said.

Publicity about the threat and the accompanying plea for the public's help in apprehending seven suspected al-Qaida terrorists are a stark contrast to the FBI's actions in the summer of 2001, when intelligence officials warned President Bush of terror threats in an Aug. 6 memo called "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."

Testimony to Congress and the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks showed the FBI lacked a national, coordinated response to those 2001 threats. Some agents in charge of FBI field offices in large cities were unaware of the magnitude of the threat, and there was no headquarters-led effort to collect counterterrorism intelligence.

This time, before making the latest public announcement, Mueller said he spoke to agents in charge of all 56 field offices about "the heightened threat" and urged them to devote whatever manpower and resources necessary to counter it. The FBI also has a special task force to focus specifically on the threat.

"We don't want to repeat the problems we had in the summer of 2001," said Michael Greenberger, a former counterterrorism official in President Clinton's Justice Department and now a University of Maryland professor. "You have to circle the wagons and put on a full-court press. You can't just sit there waiting for actionable intelligence."

New publicity about the seven al-Qaida suspects being sought - six of whom have been pursued by the FBI for months - had generated more than 2,000 tips to an FBI Web site since Wednesday afternoon. It normally receives 200 terrorism-related leads every day.

One discordant note in the new terror threat announcement was the decision by the Homeland Security Department to recommend keeping the color-coded threat level at yellow, the midpoint on a five-color scale. That raised questions as to whether there was dissent in the Bush administration about how to interpret the threat intelligence.

"It is confusing that this administration would indicate that al-Qaida is far along the road to planning a major attack in the United States but not raise the threat level," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security, attributed the difference to the Justice Department's focus on law enforcement and his agency's focus on efforts to protect the country's economic and public infrastructure.

"We're well-coordinated and we're articulating the same message," Hutchinson said.

Justice Department officials also say publicity about terror threats can deter operations, sometimes delaying them to give investigators more time to find the operatives.

"It's part of our strategy to defeat the bad guys," said Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo. "It puts them on edge."


Associated Press writers Katherine Pfleger Shrader and Leslie Miller contributed to this story.


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