Terror alert: how four-year-old information was transformed into clear and present danger

By Andrew Buncombe in Washington, Nigel Morris and Jason Bennetto

The Independent

04 August 2004

The Bush administration was forced into the embarrassing admission yesterday that "new" intelligence about al-Qa'ida's plans to attack US financial institutions - information that led to an official alert and a slew of fresh security measures - was up to four years old and predated the 11 September attacks.

Intelligence officials were forced into retreat just a day after they had said fresh and "alarmingly" specific information indicated terrorists were planning attacks on institutions in Washington, New York and New Jersey and had been carrying out surveillance of the targets. One investigator had even said that al-Qa'ida operatives had recently carried out a "test-run" for an attack against a bank.

The security alert in the US prompted alarming reports yesterday of potential attacks on targets in Britain. Head-lines in British newspapers yesterday suggested banks in the City and Canary Wharf could be in bombers' sights.

Government and counter-terrorist sources said the UK security threat remained unchanged. Anti-terrorist sources said that there was no specific information about targets in Britain contained in the material from Pakistan or any intelligence that needed to be acted upon immediately.

One city insider accused sections of the media of "irresponsible sensationalism", adding: "The feeling from the Home Office, Metropolitan Police and other London banks is the story has been blown out of proportion. Security has been high since 2001."

While no extra police officers were deployed in Britain as a direct response to the reports, London-based bankers and city chiefs, alarmed at events in the US, were seeking advice from Scotland Yard.

Tom Ridge, the Homeland Security Secretary, admitted yesterday that the decision to warn the financial institutions was based on information that was at least three years old.

He said, however, that the threat remained real and the decision to issue the warning and raise the security level had been "essential". His statement came at the same time that authorities reopened part of the Statue of Liberty for the first time since the attacks in 2001.

"I don't want anyone to disabuse themselves of the seriousness of this information simply because there are some reports that much of it is dated; it might be two or three years old," he said, speaking at the Citi- group building in Manhattan, which was named as a potential target. He said there was evidence al-Qa'ida had been casing targets as recently as January.

Replying to accusations the alerts were, to an extent, politically motivated, he added: "We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security. This is not about politics. It's about confidence in government. We have made it more difficult for the terrorists to achieve their broad objectives."

Despite Mr Ridge's assertion, a transcript of a background briefing provided to the US media on Sunday night by intelligence agencies reveals the extent to which officials were determined to imply the information was current. It was that briefing on which the majority of reports were based.

During the briefing one official, described only as a "senior intelligence official", said: "The new information is chilling in its scope, in its detail, in its breadth. It also gives a sense, the same feeling one would have if one found that somebody broke into your house and over the past several months was taking a lot of details about your place of residence and looking for ways to attack."

The official added: "[The information demonstrates] al-Qa'ida is meticulous in its efforts and since 9/11 there has been an effort made to ensure that they have the information that they need in order to carry out attacks."

The Washington Post , one of many newspapers to carry the claims, yesterday quoted one senior law enforcement official briefed on the intelligence who said: "There is nothing right now that we're hearing that is new. Why did we go to this level? I still don't know that."

The alert on Sunday resulted in a rapid upgrading of security at the five institutions identified as al-Qa'ida targets: the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington, the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup in New York and the Prudential Financial building in Newark, New Jersey. In Washington, police closed roads around the Capitol and put armed officers on the underground, while, in New York, roads and bridges were closed to certain vehicles because the national security level was raised to "orange" (high).

Those restrictions remained in place yesterday, despite the admission that the information on which they were based was not new.

The Washington police chief, Charles Ramsey, said the new measures may stay in place at least until after the November presidential election.

Since the Democrats and their candidate in November's presidential election, John Kerry, want to appear tough on security issues, few senior figures are prepared to publicly criticise the Bush administration.

For its part, the White House was still insisting yesterday that the three-year-old information was detailed and "chilling". The spokesman, Scott McClellan, said: "I think you have to keep in mind al-Qa'ida's history of planning attacks well in advance and then updating plans just before attacking."

Many Americans feel sceptical. Jorge Diaz, a building safety worker, told the Reuters news agency he thought the government was overcompensating for failing to give a warning three years ago. He said: "At a certain point it becomes exaggerated."