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Sources of the Threat of Terror Attacks on the U.S.

August 2, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: What was the intelligence that prompted the government to ratchet up the terror alert, and where did it come from? For that we go to Doug Jehl, national security correspondent for the New York Times.

Doug, welcome. Tell us more about where this information came from. There have been two conflicting… two different sources cited in published reports that I’ve read today.

DOUG JEHL: The information came from Pakistan, and the most important information came from a man named Mohammed Naeem Khan who was arrested July 13. He’s a computer engineer just 25 years old. But he seems to have served as a clearinghouse for al-Qaida communications. It was his arrest that led the CIA with the Pakistanis to some really important stores of information, computer disks and the like.

MARGARET WARNER: And so it… has he also talked to them or is it all documentary evidence off these computer disks?

DOUG JEHL: We believe he’s talked to them but what’s much more important is the broader account that’s contained in these electronics data streams. They’re the accounts not just him as a communicator but of those apparently conducting the reconnaissance, the surveillance on these buildings in New York and Washington.

MARGARET WARNER: Now give us a sense of the scope of the detail that this surveillance, these al-Qaida plotters had detected. I think one intelligence official yesterday called it a treasure trove of information.

DOUG JEHL: It was extraordinarily detailed. It was as detailed information one of these officials said as he’s seen in 24 years in the intelligence business — had the kind of… had drawings, photographs of these sites, information about how to gain access to the buildings, extraordinarily detailed. It’s important to note though that it was also old. As Frances Townsend said earlier in your program it appears to have come from 2000 and 2001. And the question the authorities are wrestling with now is whether that kind of old information really represents a current threat.

MARGARET WARNER: Was it clear at all how they did this surveillance, how they got close enough, I gather they even knew what the check-in procedures were at the security guards’ desk, details like that that you would have had to get into the building to do.

DOUG JEHL: It’s difficult to say precisely what they did. We’ve seen… we’ve heard secondhand accounts of what may have been secondhand accounts. That said, there was description of the ideal coffee houses to survey these buildings, talk of whether it was easier to gain access to a high floor in midweek or on the weekends and some of these accounts appear to have been written in the first person. We’re quoted from a document that talked about obtaining access during midweek as I did.

MARGARET WARNER: And Tom Ridge said yesterday that the belief was that the preferred mode of attack would be some sort of truck bomb. Did that come out of all this material?

DOUG JEHL: It apparently did. The detailed information about the surveillance of these sites did come from this material. It indicated that there might be other approaches, perhaps a computer attack, perhaps some kind of disruption from inside the buildings but that a truck bomb was the favored attack. This information is being read against other streams of intelligence that come from other sources. It’s a little difficult to say precisely what came from where, but the most detailed came from these computer records.

MARGARET WARNER: So then there was also this arrest in Pakistan about eight days ago of a different fellow. We cited it actually in our earlier report. Did that also contribute or is that something quite different?

DOUG JEHL: That did contribute. But as I understand it, it contributed in a less significant way. This is a man named Galani, a Tanzanian who was wanted by the U.S. for that bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania in 1998, not insignificant. The U.S. put up $25 million for his arrest. Computers found with him when he was arrested by the Pakistanis about eight days ago had information pointing to attacks. As I understand it though, it was Khan, the younger computer engineer, who pointed the authorities toward Galani and the real trove came from information linked closer to Khan, the communicator, than Galani the bomber.

MARGARET WARNER: Now I gather there was not really any detail about when this attack may take place. Is that correct?

DOUG JEHL: That’s correct. And that’s very important.

MARGARET WARNER: So if this terror alert has been imposed on these five sites now, I mean why now? Would that continue indefinitely? What are U.S. officials telling you about that?

DOUG JEHL: Well, they’re saying this. They’re saying that that surveillance that produced these detailed reports was old, it’s also relatively accurate and may well be current, as Mrs. Townsend said, some of it may have been updated as recently as January. Take those plans on the shelf, as it were, and juxtapose them against other intelligence suggesting that al-Qaida may well be planning to carry out an attack this year and intelligence officials argue that there was certainly reason to declare this kind of threat and to be very wary.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, you’re saying that the information originally recovered just had to do with the collection or surveillance but then there are other intelligence sources that suggest they may be either in the planning or even operational phase?

DOUG JEHL: That’s exactly right. The information from Pakistan was about collection, not an operation, not a plot underway. But there’s other information that we’ve been hearing, intelligence officials have been talking about for six or eight weeks based on interrogations of people in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan suggesting pretty strongly that something may well be on the way.

MARGARET WARNER: Help us understand something that Mrs. Townsend said to Jim earlier. It had to do with the identity of people either who had done this surveillance or who might be involved, and she said, well, we have some information but I won’t give you the details because we’re trying to capture them. Can you give us any information on these people in this country, out of this country? Were they involved in the surveillance? Are they thought to be involved in the plot itself?

DOUG JEHL: I don’t know any details precisely. Certainly operations are underway in the U.S. and abroad to track down the people involved in this. I think the clues in the documents were probably relatively sparse. First names, aliases, some e- mail addresses maybe long discarded but I think there are also some indications that people were able to gain access to some of these buildings possibly with the help of employees and those are live active leads that authorities are pursuing.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, I gather this fellow Khan also gave a great deal of information about just the whole way al-Qaida operates and communicates.

DOUG JEHL: He did. In this case I think we’re talking about a single source account and perhaps one that may not be seen as quite as credible as the others. But what he did provide to Pakistani intelligence officials, as one of those Pakistani officials told my colleague David Rhode in Pakistan was that he served as a middleman. Information came from al-Qaida leaders in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region by courier often on hard copy or on disk and from there it was relayed by e-mail via Internet sites, sort of a combination of the low tech and the high tech.

MARGARET WARNER: Doug Jehl of the New York Times, thank you very much.

DOUG JEHL: Thank you.