Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 3, 2004; Page A01
Most of the al Qaeda surveillance of five financial institutions that led to a new terrorism alert Sunday was conducted before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and authorities are not sure whether the casing of the buildings has continued, numerous intelligence and law enforcement officials said yesterday.
More than half a dozen government officials interviewed yesterday, who declined to be identified because classified information is involved, said that most, if not all, of the information about the buildings seized by authorities in a raid in Pakistan last week was about three years old, and possibly older.
"There is nothing right now that we're hearing that is new," said one senior law enforcement official who was briefed on the alert. "Why did we go to this level? . . . I still don't know that."
One piece of information on one building, which intelligence officials would not name, appears to have been updated in a computer file as late as January 2004, according to a senior intelligence official. But officials could not say yesterday whether that piece of data was the result of active surveillance by al Qaeda or came instead from information about the buildings that is publicly available.
Many administration officials stressed yesterday that even three-year-old intelligence, when coupled with other information about al Qaeda's plans to attack the United States, justified the massive security response in the three cities. Police and other security teams have been assigned to provide extra protection for the surveilled buildings, identified as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank headquarters in Washington; the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup Center in New York; and the Prudential Financial building in Newark.
Intelligence officials said that the remarkably detailed information about the surveillance -- which included logs of pedestrian traffic and notes on the types of explosives that might work best against each target -- was evaluated in light of general intelligence reports received this summer indicating that al Qaeda hopes to strike a U.S. target before the November presidential elections.
Several officials also said that much of the information compiled by terrorist operatives about the buildings in Washington, New York and Newark was obtained through the Internet or other "open sources" available to the general public, including some floor plans.
The characterization of the age of the intelligence yesterday cast a new light on Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's announcement Sunday that the terrorism threat alert for the financial services sectors in the three cities had been raised. Ridge and other officials stressed Sunday the urgency of acting on the newly obtained information, but yesterday a range of officials made clear how dated much of the intelligence was.
One senior intelligence official said the information is still being evaluated.
A number of other buildings were mentioned in the seized computer files, but only in vague references, so officials decided not to issue alerts about them, an intelligence official said. They included the Bank of America building in San Francisco; the Nasdaq and American Stock Exchange buildings in New York, as well as two other sites in that city; and an undisclosed building in Washington and another in New Jersey.
"We chose not to release it because we decided they weren't anywhere near the same level of danger as the others," the official said.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney said in separate appearances yesterday that the new alert underscores the continuing threat posed by al Qaeda. At a news conference announcing his proposed intelligence reforms, Bush said the alert shows "there's an enemy which hates what we stand for."
"It's serious business," Bush said. "I mean, we wouldn't be, you know, contacting authorities at the local level unless something was real."
Employees at announced targets in New York and New Jersey arrived at work yesterday with a mix of defiance and jitters. Some said they wanted to send a message that terrorists could not deter them from living their lives as usual. Others were visibly shaken by the presence of heavily armed police officers and new barricades.
At the New York Stock Exchange, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg rang the opening bell. Exchange chief executive John A. Thain and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) greeted arriving workers. "I wouldn't be surprised if attendance weren't higher today," Schumer said. "We are winning the war of nerves."
Much of the information about the targeted buildings is contained on a laptop computer and computer disks recovered during recent raids in Pakistan. A senior intelligence official said the cache also includes about 500 photographs, diagrams and drawings, some of them digital.
Two senior intelligence officials who briefed reporters on Sunday said the material showed al Qaeda operatives had cased the buildings both before and after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I think the indications are that this has been a very longstanding effort on the part of al Qaeda," one official said Sunday, "that it dates from before 9/11, it continued after 9/11 and based on what it is that we are concerned about, we know about in terms of al Qaeda's plans and intentions that it probably continues even today."
Speaking about the five buildings, one official said, "I believe that since 9/11 they have been able to acquire additional information on these targets here in the United States, yes, I do."
Numerous officials said yesterday, however, that most of the information was compiled prior to the Sept. 11 attacks and that there are serious doubts about the age of other, undated files. One senior counterterrorism official said many of the documents include dates prior to Sept. 11, 2001, but there are no dates after that.
"Most of the information is very dated but you clearly have targets with enough specificity, and that pushed it over the edge," the counterterrorism official said. "You've got the Republican convention coming up, the Olympics, the elections. . . . I think there was a feeling that we should err on the side of caution even if it's not clear that anything is new."
One federal law enforcement source said his understanding from reviewing the reports was that the material predated Sept. 11 and included photos that can be obtained from brochures and some actual snapshots. There also were some interior diagrams that appear to be publicly available.
Other officials also stressed that, however long ago al Qaeda operatives compiled the surveillance details, the information was new to U.S. intelligence agencies and was almost unprecedented in the depth of its details. "All this stuff was fresh to us," one official said.
At the CIA's daily 5 p.m. counterterrorism meeting Thursday, the first information about the detailed al Qaeda surveillance of the five financial buildings was discussed among senior CIA, FBI and military officials. They decided to launch a number of worldwide operations, including the deployment of increased law enforcement around the five buildings.
A senior intelligence official said translations of the computer documents and other intelligence started arriving on Friday. "We worked on it late, and through that night," he said. "We had very specific, credible information, and when we laid it in on the threat environment we're in," officials decided they had to announce it.
"It's not known whether the plot was active and ongoing," the official added. "It could have been planned for tomorrow, or it could have been scrapped. Maybe there were other iterations of it. In this environment, this was seen as pertinent information to get out to the public. There was discussion over the weekend, should we wait until Monday?"
Initially, top administration officials had decided to wait until yesterday to announce the alert, but more intelligence information was coming in -- both new translations of the documents, and analysis of other sources' statements -- that deepened their concern about the information, and persuaded them to move ahead swiftly. "There was a serious sense of urgency to get it out," the senior intelligence official said.
On Saturday, officials from the CIA, the FBI, the Homeland Security and Justice departments, the White House, and other agencies agreed with Ridge to recommend that the financial sectors in New York, Washington and North Jersey be placed on orange, or "high," alert. Ridge made the recommendation to Bush on Sunday morning, and Bush signed off on it at 10 a.m.
In a signal of how seriously the administration took the information, officials briefed senior media executives, including network anchors, before a Sunday news conference and briefing for reporters.
In New York yesterday, traffic backed up at tunnels and bridges into the city, Hercules and Atlas police teams toting rifles and machine guns checked vehicles, police helicopters crisscrossed the skies, and employees throughout the financial district stood in long security queues, showing their corporate identifications and bags to guards.
Around the NYSE in Lower Manhattan, rows of concrete and metal barricades were in place and side streets were blocked off.
In Newark, officials set up concrete barriers and police teams around the 24-story Prudential building, where about 1,000 employees work. "I'm a little nervous," analyst Tracy Swistak, 27, told the Associated Press. "But I'm confident Prudential's doing everything they can to ensure our safety."
Staff writers John Mintz, Allan Lengel and Spencer S. Hsu in Washington and Michael Powell, Michelle Garcia and Ben White in New York contributed to this report.