A nation in danger. Or a president in peril?

By Andrew Buncombe in Washington

The Independent

<03 August 2004

America was bracing itself last night after intelligence agencies warned al-Qa'ida could be planning to attack financial institutions on the East Coast and that its operatives had already carried out surveillance missions on the targets.

Police sealed off streets in New York, ordered international finance employees in Washington to go through extra security checks and added barricades and a heavy armed presence in Newark, New Jersey, after intelligence gathered in Pakistan identified that institutions in these cities were being targeted.

"We are a nation in danger," said President George Bush, after the nation's state of alert was raised to "orange" (high) on Sunday evening. "We are doing everything in our power to confront the danger. [This alert is ] a solemn reminder of the threat we continue to face"

Officials said the warning was based on information gathered following the unannounced arrest in Pakistan on 13 July of a computer engineer, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, 25, who allegedly operated an al-Qa'ida communications system. Warnings based on "documentary evidence" were passed to Washington last Friday, which, combined with other intelligence, reportedly led officials to raise the alert.

The US has issued numerous terror alerts since the attacks of September 2001, and some people were sceptical yesterday as to the nature of the administration's latest warning. The former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean highlighted the concerns of many without access to the information. "It's hard to know what to make [of it]. None of us outside the administration have access to the intelligence which led to this determination," he said.

"I am concerned that every time something happens that's not good for President Bush, he plays this trump card, which is terrorism," he told CNN. "His whole campaign is based on the notion that 'I can keep you safe, therefore, at times of difficulty for America, stick with me' and then out comes Tom Ridge. It's just impossible to know how much of this is real and how much of this is politics, and I suspect there's some of both in it."

But Mr Ridge, head of the Department of Homeland Security, and other officials insisted the information was "alarmingly" more specific than the usual intelligence chatter. Information recovered after Mr Khan's arrest was a "potential treasure trove", they said.

Officials said that institutions being targeted by al-Qa'ida included the New York Stock Exchange and the Citigroup buildings in Manhattan, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington and Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey.

Reports yesterday said that al-Qa'ida operatives had carried out surveillance of those institutions and The New York Times reported investigators in New Jersey said suspects had been found with blueprints of the Newark building and a "test-run" to launch a car-bomb or similar attack had been carried out in recent days.

In New York and New Jersey, police placed the target buildings under heavy security, closing some streets and banning trucks from bridges and tunnels leading to Wall Street. Michael Bloomberg, the New York mayor, and the Governor, George Pataki, rang the opening bell at the stock exchange in an effort to show confidence in the city's precautions. Despite such bravado, oil prices rose to near-record highs in trading as jittery markets reacted to the alert.

Given that America is in the middle of a closely fought election campaign, there was, perhaps, little surprise that some would accuse the Bush administration of playing politics. With an eye to possible criticism from Republicans, the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, felt the need to distance himself yesterday from Mr Dean's comments.

At the same time, there have been numerous terror alerts since the 11 September attacks that appear to have been based on little more than chatter. Some - such as the arrest of Jose Padilla, the alleged "dirty-bomber" - have been announced in a way designed to have maximum political impact. Other warnings have been based on information later shown to be incorrect.

In regard to the latest alert, Mr Ridge admitted the intelligence did not give crucial details about when, where or how terrorists might strike. Officials said, however, the information showed al-Qa'ida operatives had been scouting the targets, seeing how to make contact with employees, as well as traffic patterns and locations of hospitals and police posts.