Data That Prompted Terror Alert Pre-dates 9/11

Remember how the Department of Homeland Security put those financial centers on Orange Alert because of intelligence he described as “alarming in both the amount and specificity of the information”?

Funny story: it turns out that the intelligence that he was referring to is actually pretty old — so old that it actually pre-dates the September 11 attacks:

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.”

So DHS is throwing the alarm lever over information they’ve had in hand for three years? What the hell is that about?

Howard Dean took plenty of flak for suggesting that the motivation for this alert might be more political than security-oriented. He’s looking a lot smarter about this stuff today than the people (myself included) who took DHS seriously are.


Sandy Smith

August 3, 2004
11:34 am

Unfortunately, I think we’ll see more, not less of this sort of thing as time goes on. The calculus for a politician is this:
If you do nothing and a terrorist attack occurs, the $ATTACK_DATE Commission will find this intelligence you got in July and will spin it thus: “You mean you had evidence that as long as THREE YEARS AGO Al Quaeda has been interested in these buildings and you did NOTHING???”
Now as to the timing of now versus earlier–it’s a tough call, and any proximity — before, during, or after — the DNC will get charges of “political timing”. Of course, the charges might still be true.
So I think even in a Kerry administration we’ll see lots of Chicken Little full-bore panics every time we get some sketchy information, because everybody will look at the 9/11 Commission and the 9/11 Families division of the Think of the Children! brigade and see that CYA is the order of the day. Avoiding blame is healthier for a political career than actually husbanding our resources so they prevent the greatest number and severity of attacks.

Jason Lefkowitz

August 3, 2004
12:22 pm

Well, I think they could have avoided the CYA concern by just releasing the information that credible, if dated, intelligence suggested these buildings as targets.
The problem is that they didn’t — they made it sound like they had found some incredible, fresh new intelligence and that there was a new, urgent threat to the buildings. That goes beyond CYA, IMHO.
Here’s the DHS press release:
Note in the second paragraph that Secretary Ridge specifically refers to the reason for the alert as “new intelligence information”. Unless there’s some other intel than what the Post is talking about, that’s a lie — this information is hardly new. And calling it “new” just encourages people to see the threat as more imminent than it is.
He does it again further down, in the Q&A:
“QUESTION: Secretary Ridge, related to the targets in New York City, do have any information that would connect this plot to pre-election threats you’ve talked about or more specifically the upcoming Republican convention in New York City?
SECRETARY RIDGE: Well the consistent reporting stream, and I think it was back on July 8th when we had a press conference here where we talked about several sources that generally had discussed a possibility of attacking us during – to try to undermine our democratic process, and I think one could reasonably infer that this could be part of that effort, but I don’t think you necessarily should put a timeframe around when these targets, if they were ultimately the subject of an attack, would be attacked.”
Here it’s not as blatant, but notice how he connects the current threat with the recent (July 8) warning about attempts to disrupt the election. This makes it sounds as if this information is part of the same stream, and is therefore newer than July 8.
I think you’re right that it’s in the nature of bureaucrats to play the CYA game. But there’s a responsible way for men in Ridge’s position to cover themselves, and then there are irresponsible ways, and this one strikes me as pretty irresponsible based on what we are learning now.


August 4, 2004
10:26 pm

But I don’t think we’ve had the information for three years, just that the information that we took off guys we’ve recently captured in the towns of our “great friend” Pakistan was three years old. I think that’s a bigh difference that the media is being lazy in distinguishing. Draging out info that’s been in a box or CIA file somewhere since 2000 seems political and stupid. Raising an alert because a bunch of terrorists who are known to do long term planning have been found with old information on potential targets seems cautious and CYA, but understandable. And if it is the later that is going on, then I think its unfair to tag Ridge for using this for political purposes, since DHS is at least now making an effort to target the alerts to specific areas and explain where there information is coming from