White House Has Some Terror Experts Worried

Officials here and overseas say U.S. alerts and release of information could hinder broader investigations.

By Jeffrey Fleishman

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

August 11, 2004

BERLIN — Heightened terror alerts and high-profile arrests of suspected Islamic extremists have international security experts and officials concerned that the Bush administration's actions could jeopardize investigations into the Al Qaeda network.

European terrorism analysts acknowledge that the U.S. and its allies are under threat by Al Qaeda, but some suggest that the White House is unnecessarily adding to public anxiety with vague and dated intelligence about possible attacks. Some in Western Europe suspect the administration is using fear to improve its chances in the November election.

Terrorism experts say too much publicity about possible plots and raids of Islamic extremist networks, including the arrest of 13 suspects in Britain last week, could hurt wider investigations. American politicians have called for an examination of that contention. Officials in Pakistan reportedly said Tuesday that Washington's recent disclosure of the arrest of a suspected Al Qaeda operative, Moham med Naeem Noor Khan, allowed other extremists under surveillance to disappear.

"It causes a problem. There's no doubt about that," said Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies. "The moment you make any announcement, you tell the other side what you know. As a rule of thumb, you should keep quiet about what you know."

British security officials are angry over recent U.S. revelations of terrorist threats and arrests, said Paul Beaver, an international defense analyst based in London. He said the attitude among some British intelligence officials was that the "Americans have a very strange way of thanking their friends, by revealing names of agents, details of plots and operations."

Along with such criticism, the administration faces questions at home about how it handles terrorism investigations and alerts. It insists it hasn't used the alerts to further Bush's political campaign, but some Democrats disagree.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked the White House, in a lett er to national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, to explain how Khan's name was made public and whether the disclosure had jeopardized any investigations.

Rice said over the weekend that she did not know whether Khan was cooperating with Pakistani authorities, and she said his name had not been disclosed publicly by the administration. The administration has tried to find a middle ground between informing the public and keeping investigations secret, she said.

"We've tried to strike a balance," Rice said. "We think for the most part we've struck a balance, but it's indeed a very difficult balance to strike."

Several senior U.S. counterterrorism officials have expressed concern in the last week about the amount of information leaking out, saying it has begun to have a direct and negative effect on efforts to round up suspects and gain insight into any conspirators.

"It is really hurting our efforts in a very demonstrable way," said one official, who declined to elaborate.

Larry Johnson, a former senior counterterrorism official at the State Department and CIA, said Tuesday that the leaks were part of a pattern in which the administration had undercut its own efforts to fight terrorism by divulging details when doing so was deemed politically advantageous.

The administration "has a dismal track record in protecting these secrets," said Johnson, deputy director of the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism from 1989 to 1993.

"We have now learned, thanks to White House leaks, that the Al Qaeda operative was being used to help authorities around the world locate and apprehend other Al Qaeda terrorists," Johnson said, citing reports that the disclosures "enabled other Al Qaeda operatives to escape."

"Protecting secrets and sources is serious business," he added. "Regrettably, the Bush administration appears to be putting more emphasis on politicizing intelligence and the war on terror. That approach threatens our national security, in my judgmen t."

Officials in Western Europe are reluctant to speak even off the record on intelligence matters. Most governments here are more circumspect in announcing possible terrorist threats and are concerned that Washington is acting too quickly on intelligence that has not been thoroughly analyzed. Germany, France and Britain have not raised their terror alerts during the August vacation season.

"The Code Orange disaster in the U.S. last week was quickly followed by raids in Pakistan and arrests in Britain, which all help the Bush administration show there is a global terrorist network," said Kai Hirschmann, deputy director of the Institute for Terrorism Research in Essen, Germany. "But I think there's a bit of politics behind it.

"What makes it complex is that we know there are dangers out there, and that makes it difficult to tell fact from fiction," he said. "With all this media attention, one has to wonder what else is at work."

But other countries, such as Italy, one of the cl osest U.S. allies on Iraq, have followed Washington's lead. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government has issued numerous terrorist warnings. Thousands of extra Italian police have been deployed after threats on an Islamic website said terrorists would strike if Rome did not withdraw its troops from Iraq by Aug. 15.

Europeans discovered in March that terrorists like to attack at symbolic times: The Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people sent a shudder through the continent just days before Spanish elections. But skepticism toward Washington means many in Europe are wondering if the threats recently reported in the U.S. are genuine or political spin.

In Britain, the recent raids followed last month's seizure in Pakistan of computer files belonging to Khan. The disclosure of his arrest and identity allowed some Al Qaeda suspects under Pakistani surveillance to slip away, officials told Associated Press in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

The files also led to Britain's arrest of Abu Eisa al Hindi, who U.S. authorities allege was enlisted by Khan to spy on financial institutions in New York and Washington. Hindi had been under observation by British security officials for months. There were indications that the British government, forced to act after Washington's disclosures about Khan's files, felt stung by the exposure of his sudden arrest.

"It looks as though there has been some irritation at fairly high levels in both Pakistan and Britain" over U.S. revelations, said Timothy Garden, a security analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

British Home Secretary David Blunkett, echoing concerns raised by U.S. lawmakers about identifying suspects, said he would not divulge intelligence to "feed the news frenzy." The British government, he added, does not want to "undermine in any way our sources of information or share information which could place investigations in jeopardy…. We don't want to do or say anything that would prejudice any trial."
The U.S. has been less forthcoming with intelligence when it comes to Germany's attempts to prosecute suspected terrorists. It is refusing to allow alleged Al Qaeda operatives in its custody to testify at a retrial of a suspected extremist that began Tuesday in Hamburg. Saying it would harm ongoing intelligence gathering, the U.S. is denying the court access to Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

In a letter this week to German authorities, the State Department said it would provide only unclassified summaries of interrogations with certain suspects. The decision, German prosecutors say, jeopardizes the case against Mounir Motassadeq, a Moroccan accused of having links to the Sept. 11 hijackers. A second Moroccan in Germany was acquitted this year on similar charges after a judge found he could not get a fair trial without access to Binalshibh or his interrogation transcripts.

The Bush administration is "creating an overall tension that has both tactics and politics around it," Hirschmann said. "When I hear things about concrete targets such as airports and stock exchanges, I am less worried something will happen there. You don't publicize things. You don't communicate what you know through the media."

In Italy, terrorist alerts have created an atmosphere similar to that in the U.S. The Berlusconi government and the Italian media have heavily reported threats made by militant groups to attack the country unless Rome withdraws from Iraq.

In a front-page editorial last week, La Repubblica said Italy was in a "poisoned climate." It said the threats had "to be weighed carefully. It would be irresponsible to ignore them, but it would also [be wrong] to exaggerate them to create panic and … a psychological war."

Times staff writers Janet Stobart in London, Maria De Cristofaro in Rome and Josh Meyer in Washington contributed to this report.