U.S. Intercepting Messages Hinting at a New Attack

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U.S. Intercepting Messages Hinting at a New Attack By JAMES RISEN and DAVID JOHNSTON

ASHINGTON, May 18 American intelligence agencies have intercepted a vague yet troubling series of communications among Al Qaeda operatives over the last few months indicating that the terrorist organization is trying to carry out an operation as big as or bigger than the Sept. 11 attacks, according to intelligence and law enforcement officials.

But just as last summer's threats left counterterrorism analysts guessing about Al Qaeda's intentions, and believing that the attack might be carried out overseas, the new interceptions are so general that they have left President Bush and his counterterrorism team in the dark about the time, place or method of what some officials refer to as a second-wave attack. As a result, the government is essentially limited to taking broad defensive measures.

"It's again not specific not specific as to time, not specific as to place," one senior administration official said.

The officials compared the intercepted messages, which they described as cryptic and ambiguous, to the pattern of those picked up last spring and early summer, when Qaeda operatives were also overheard talking about a big operation. Those signals were among the evidence that intelligence agencies presented to President Bush in August about the possibility of an imminent attack against the United States.

The senior official said Friday that the amount of intelligence relating to another possible attack, in Europe, the Arabian Peninsula or the United States, had increased in the last month. Some of it comes from interviews with fighters captured in Afghanistan.

But despite the disruption of Al Qaeda's operations around the world since Sept. 11, and despite major spending increases and shifts of resources to counterterrorism operations, American officials say they have not been able to fully piece together the clues about Al Qaeda's plans.

"There's just a lot of chatter in the system again," the official said. "We are actively pursuing it and trying to see what's going on here."

The government's frustration underscores the problem in fighting an unconventional foe like Al Qaeda.

Interviews with law enforcement and intelligence officials suggest that in the eight months since Sept. 11 the government has made only limited progress in its ability to predict Al Qaeda's next move, and that many proposed improvements in counterterrorism operations have yet to be put into effect.

This is despite considerable advantages that the United States lacked a year ago. The war in Afghanistan has provided a wealth of new information about Al Qaeda's structure and organization, for example.

In addition, the United States is also interrogating captured Qaeda fighters about the organization's plans. Officials say that debriefings of detainees have in some instances provided general warnings of another major attack that dovetail with the threats picked up in the intercepted communication traffic.

Facing intense criticism in recent days over disclosures that a series of possible clues about Al Qaeda's plans fell through the cracks in the months leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks, officials say that some significant changes have been made in the way threat information is studied and circulated within the upper reaches of the Bush administration.

For the first time, the C.I.A. and F.B.I. now compare notes on all terrorist threat information that comes in each day, filtering the intelligence through what they call an analytical "matrix" to determine which threats are the most credible and deserve the most attention. Their daily threat report is distributed to senior policy makers, including the White House director of homeland security, Tom Ridge. It provides a structure for debates among senior officials about whether to issue public threat warnings.

President Bush also now receives daily briefings from both the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, and Robert S. Mueller III, the F.B.I. director, are frequently present during those White House sessions. That way, each agency is able to hear the other's latest advice to the president. Before Sept. 11, he received a daily briefing only from the C.I.A.

Although officials say some potential attacks have been foiled, that has been largely credited to the arrest of terrorist operatives overseas by foreign governments rather than to intelligence gleaned from intercepted communications.

United States intelligence officials said that they began to intercept communications among Qaeda operatives discussing a second major attack in October, and that they have detected recurring talk among them about another attack ever since. Some of the intercepted communications have included frightening references to attacks that the Qaeda operatives say would cause vast numbers of American casualties.

The intercepted communications do not point to any detailed plans for an attack, and even the messages mentioning mass casualties do not refer specifically to the use of weapons of mass destruction like chemical, biological or nuclear devices.

Still, American officials say they believe the intercepts represent some of the most credible intelligence they have received since Sept. 11 about Al Qaeda's intentions. They have provided a troubling undercurrent for the Bush administration as it tries to sort through the hundreds of other terrorist threat warnings it has received over the past few months.

The pattern of intercepted communications that began last October has helped prompt at least five public threat alerts issued by the F.B.I. since last fall.

By contrast, federal law enforcement and intelligence officials say they have been skeptical of many of the far more specific threats they have received from individual informants over the past few months. One of the problems now facing American counterterrorism experts is that they say communications intercepts, while vaguely worded, are often highly credible threat warnings, while the very detailed and specific threats passed on by individual informants are often far less reliable.

Individual informants who approach American investigators in the United States or overseas often know what kind of story will get the biggest reaction. They also often come forward because of hidden motives, perhaps hoping for money or entrance into the United States. The C.I.A. routinely gives its informants polygraph tests in an effort to validate their stories.

But officials say that in some cases they have been forced to take tales told by informants more seriously than they otherwise might, at least in part because officials suspect from the intercepted communications that Al Qaeda is planning something big.

In recent months, officials have issued threat alerts regarding nuclear plants, financial institutions and even specific structures like the Seattle Space Needle and the Golden Gate Bridge, even as some counterterrorism experts privately regarded those threats as not based on solid intelligence.

Some officials say the government's new color-coded threat alert system is less useful than the system it replaced, because it is subject to political influences from appointees who are fearful of being criticized if they fail to pass on every possible threat, no matter how remote.

Yet even as the less credible threats have been widely publicized, the more worrisome and credible undercurrent of intercepted communications has not been made public.

In hindsight, analysts now view the pattern of intercepted communications they saw last May, June and July as a sign of the impending attacks. Those intercepts, coming after embassy bombings in Africa and the suicidal bombing of a Navy ship in an Arabian port, were sometimes alarming.

Their references to mass attacks against American interests prompted a series of public alerts against possible terrorist attacks last summer, including one concerning a possible strike over the Fourth of July holiday. Officials said that they never had any evidence that an attack would occur inside the United States, and instead focused most of their attention on possible strikes against American facilities in the Middle East, Europe or Asia.

After the summer holiday passed quietly without any attacks, American analysts were relieved, but still believed that an attack might be coming. However, they lacked any further details of where or when the strike might come, and some officials began to think that the immediate danger might have passed. Now that analysts are seeing a similar pattern of communications intercepts, they say they are determined to avoid a repeat of that mistake.


-- Martin (mthom1927@aol.com), May 18, 2002

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