The New York Times
August 3, 2004
WASHINGTON, Aug. 2 -Much of the information that led the authorities to raise the terror alert at several large financial institutions in the New York City and Washington areas was three or four years old, intelligence and law enforcement officials said on Monday. They reported that they had not yet found concrete evidence that a terrorist plot or preparatory surveillance operations were still under way.
But the officials continued to regard the information as significant and troubling because the reconnaissance already conducted has provided Al Qaeda with the knowledge necessary to carry out attacks against the sites in Manhattan, Washington and Newark. They said Al Qaeda had often struck years after its operatives began surveillance of an intended target.
Taken together with a separate, more general stream of intelligence, which indicates that Al Qaeda intends to strike in the United States this year, possibly in New York or Washington, the officials said even the dated but highly detailed evidence of surveillance was sufficient to prompt the authorities to undertake a global effort to track down the unidentified suspects involved in the surveillance operations.
"You could say that the bulk of this information is old, but we know that Al Qaeda collects, collects, collects until they're comfortable,'' said one senior government official. "Only then do they carry out an operation. And there are signs that some of this may have been updated or may be more recent.''
Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser, said on Monday in an interview on PBS that surveillance reports, apparently collected by Qaeda operatives had been "gathered in 2000 and 2001.'' But she added that information may have been updated as recently as January.
The comments of government officials on Monday seemed softer in tone than the warning issued the day before. On Sunday, officials were circumspect in discussing when the surveillance of the financial institutions had occurred, and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge cited the quantity of intelligence from "multiple reporting streams'' that he said was "alarming in both the amount and specificity of the information.''
The officials said on Monday that they were still analyzing computer records, photos, drawings and other documents, seized last month in Pakistan, which showed that Qaeda operatives had conducted extensive reconnaissance.
"What we've uncovered is a collection operation as opposed to the launching of an attack," a senior American official said.
Still, the official said the new trove of material, which was being sifted for fresh clues, combined with more recent flows of intelligence, had demonstrated that Al Qaeda remains active and intent on attacking the United States.
The concern about the possibility of an attack was apparent on Monday. Armed guards were positioned at the five targets listed by Mr. Ridge: the New York Stock Exchange and the Citigroup buildings in Manhattan, the headquarters of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington and Prudential Financial in Newark. The buildings were subjected to their highest level of security since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, with barricades, rapid-response teams and bomb-sniffing dogs providing rings of protection.
With intelligence reports specifying a possible truck bombing, police stopped and searched vehicles in the Wall Street area, while vans and trucks were banned from bridges and tunnels entering lower Manhattan.
In Washington, President Bush said the alert issued on Sunday reflected "a serious business.'' He said at a White House news conference, "We wouldn't be contacting authorities at the local level unless something was real.''
Despite the new terror warnings, the stock market gained ground, denting expectations that it would drop with the heightened security alert. The Dow Jones industrial average was up 39 points.
A sizable part of the information seized in Pakistan described reconnaissance carried out before the Sept. 11 attacks, officials said. The documents do not indicate who wrote the detailed descriptions of security arrangements at the financial buildings or whether the surveillance was conducted for a current operation or was part of preparations for a plan that was later set aside.
In a briefing on Sunday, a senior intelligence official said that the threat to the financial institutions "probably continues even today."
Federal authorities said on Monday that they had uncovered no evidence that any of the surveillance activities described in the documents was currently under way. They said officials in New Jersey had been mistaken in saying on Sunday that some suspects had been found with blueprints and may have recently practiced "test runs'' aimed at the Prudential building in Newark.
Joseph Billy Jr., the special agent in charge of the F.B.I.'s Newark office, said a diagram of the Prudential building had been found in Pakistan. "It appears to be from the period around 9/11,'' Mr. Billy said. "Now we're trying to see whether it goes forward from there.''
Another counterterrorism official in Washington said that it was not yet clear whether the information pointed to a current plot. "We know that Al Qaeda routinely cases targets and then puts the plans on a shelf without doing anything,'' the official said.
The documents were found after Pakistani authorities acting on information supplied by the Central Intelligence Agency arrested Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, an engineer who was found to have served as a middleman in facilitating Qaeda communications. His capture led the C.I.A. to laptop computers, CD-ROM's, and other storage devices that contained copies of communications describing the extensive surveillance.
Mr. Khan had been essentially unknown to the United States as recently as May, according to information provided by a Pakistani intelligence official, who said the C.I.A. had described him to Pakistani authorities that month only as a shadowy figure identified by his alias, Abu Talha.
The lack of knowledge about Mr. Khan reflected how hard it has been for American authorities to penetrate Al Qaeda. He operated successfully without the government learning of his existence even after three years of an intensive intelligence war against Qaeda that has emphasized efforts to intercept the terror network's communications traffic.
In pursuing the new leads, intelligence and law enforcement authorities were working at several different levels, American officials said, in trying to make sense of what some described as a "jigsaw puzzle" that included first names, aliases, and temporary email addresses but little hard identifying material that could lead to suspects in the United States or overseas.
The scope of the inquiry ranged from "individuals who were orchestrating it from far-off lands to individuals who were in charge of different cells, to the actual operating of cells," a senior intelligence official said. The priority effort to identify people connected to the surveillance of the financial institutions has been under way since counterterrorism officials received the new information from Pakistan beginning Thursday evening, counterterrorism officials said on Monday.
The information, which officials said was indicative of preparations for a possible truck- or car-bomb attack, left significant gaps. It did not clearly describe the suspected plot, indicate when an attack was to take place nor did it describe the identities of people involved.
As a result, federal and local authorities began an effort to locate possible suspects who might have carried out the surveillance. Intelligence officers began interviewing Qaeda detainees asking whether they knew Mr. Khan or anyone who might have been involved in monitoring the targeted buildings and allied foreign intelligence services were asked if they had any information about the suspected plot.
At the same time, federal agents and local police began canvassing the buildings regarded as likely targets seeking to determine whether anyone recalled seeing people who appeared to be conducting surveillance. They sought lists of employees to determine whether anyone suspicious might have worked at any of the buildings and names of vendors, searching for anyone who might have visited the buildings to study security arrangements.
Senior counterterrorism and intelligence officials based in Europe said the information targeting the five buildings was developed by Qaeda operatives before Sept. 11, 2001. But a senior European counterterrorism official cautioned that "some recent information'' indicated that the buildings might remain on a list of Qaeda targets.
"Al Qaeda routinely comes up with ways to hit targets for years at a time, so it may not mean much that these buildings were first targeted more than three years ago,'' the official said.