Perspectives on the Terror Warning by Former CIA Officials
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RAY SUAREZ: As the security clampdown continued around financial institutions in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., today, a controversy grew over the timing of the release Sunday of heightened terror information, and about whether the intelligence was outdated. The documents identifying specific threats were found mainly on the computer of an al-Qaida suspect detained in Pakistan.
In briefings Sunday, officials said the intelligence was new. But since then, they’ve said some of the data predated the 9/11 attacks. In Manhattan today, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge defended raising the terror alert. He spoke after meeting with government and financial sector leaders at the Citigroup Building, identified as one of the potential targets.
TOM RIDGE: I don’t want anyone to disabuse themselves of the seriousness of this information simply because there are some reports that much of it is dated; it might be two or three years old. We don’t do politics in the Department of Homeland Security.
Our job is to identify the threat, match that threat information with potentially the targets that have been identified, to integrate an entire country, to build partnerships with the state and local government, to invest in technology so that as we combat international terrorism, we can put more people and technology in place to make ourselves safer. But it is — frankly, I would point out that this is the most significant, detailed pieces of information about any particular region that we’ve come across in a long, long time– perhaps ever.
RAY SUAREZ: The action has sparked criticism from Washington’s Mayor Anthony Williams, who said today that decisions made by security officials were unacceptable.
MAYOR ANTHOY WILLIAMS: You can’t continue to close streets without doing death to commerce in this city to, tourism in this city, to a tax base in this city that provides all the goods and services that people want and deserve. And I also would argue it is a living, breathing city. You can’t continue to close streets peremptorily without talking to anyone, without doing damage to your own business.
RAY SUAREZ: Former presidential candidate Howard Dean said he was suspicious of the timing. He appeared on CNN on Sunday.
HOWARD DEAN: I am concerned that every time something happens that’s not good for President Bush, he plays this trump card, which is terrorism. His whole campaign is based on the notion that “I can keep you safe; therefore in times of difficulty for America, stick with me.” And then out comes Tom Ridge.
RAY SUAREZ: An adviser to both President Bush and ridge disputed that charge on ABC this morning.
FRANCES TOWNSEND: I think the allegation is outrageous and irresponsible. The fact is, we have gotten this intelligence… we have just gotten this intelligence by working with our strong partners in Pakistan. We looked at it, given the fact how detailed it was and how chilling the intelligence is, and the fact that it was updated this year, we thought we had to get it to the people so that they could protect themselves.
RAY SUAREZ: On the campaign trail, John Kerry distanced himself from Dean’s comments, saying he took the threats seriously and wouldn’t question Ridge’s judgment. Meanwhile, in New York, amidst the latest security alert, parts of the Statue of Liberty reopened today. The 118-year-old national landmark had been closed since the Sept.11 attacks.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, two views on the need to have issued the most recent homeland security alert. Larry Johnson held various intelligence and counterterrorism posts at the State Department and CIA from 1985 to 1993. He’s now a private consultant.
And Sara Daly covered Middle East and South Asia at CIA’s counterterrorism center from 1996 to 2002, and served as its representative to the State Department for the last year of that period. She’s now a researcher at the RAND Corporation. Larry Johnson, do you agree with the way the intelligence and the warning it generated were handled?
LARRY JOHNSON: No, I don’t. I fully understand why Tom Ridge was trying to do what he’s doing. I don’t question his motives or his integrity, but I think, number one, there has been a false impression conveyed to the American people that this was threat information. This was not threat information. These were surveillance reports– surveillance reports that had been done on possible targets. You get threat information where you take the surveillance report, which is like a blueprint for how the build a house, and then if you can attach that to money to buy the land, money to hire the contractors and the assembling of the building materials, then you have a threat.
The second problem I have with it, though, is we’re running into threat fatigue; if we keep issuing warning and nothing happens, at the end of the day, the people ask, what are we supposed to do? I think if you have got specific, credible information, and then you can tell people something specifically they’re supposed to do, other than be alert and go work and keep on with normal business, you know, that’s not cutting it that way. You have to be able to tell people to do something specifically, otherwise they’re going to stop listening, and we’ll get the cry wolf phenomenon. There are wolves in the world and when they show up, people may not listen.
RAY SUAREZ: Sara Daly, once this new intelligence was on board, did Tom Ridge do the right thing?
SARA DALY: I think he absolutely did the right thing. I mean, I think terrorism analysis is not an exact science. And I would disagree and say there was a general threat environment; we did have intelligence information that indicated that there wasn’t a threat from al-Qaida in the upcoming November election.. I think based on that, when we get got this treasure trove of information from Pakistan indicating all these additional surveillance reports on the various targets inside the United States, I think coupled with the threat information that we had that they were planning attacks in November, we had to come forward and bring that information and make it available to the American public.
RAY SUAREZ: But, as has been pointed out, it was new to American intelligence officials but it wasn’t new. It was in many cases three years old and more.
SARA DALY: Well, I think you have to put it into the context of al-Qaida’s attack cycle. They have a long-planning, meticulous attack cycle. And I think it’s unclear as to where they were in that particular attack cycle. They could be planning an attack right now. We don’t know how old they were in the sense they could have been updating them along the way. And we don’t really have a sense for where they were in that attack planning cycle. They could be planning something for tomorrow they used those reports for. So we were unsure of that and given the ambiguity of it, I think we had to come forward with it.
LARRY JOHNSON: Here’s the difference: With this information, here’s what the U.S. Government should have done. Step one, they should have gone to the security managers at those businesses and said, look, these look old, let’s check up, let’s do a new threat assessment, risk assessment of your facility to find out if this matches what they decided because when al-Qaida has done vulnerability studies and surveillance reports, it doesn’t always lead to attacks. We recall the individual in Ohio who went and surveilled the Brooklyn Bridge and then said, too tough a target; we can’t do it.
The second thing that we should have done and didn’t do was by keeping this quiet, put in counter surveillance teams around all of those targets. We’ve now been shown the cards that these guys want to play. In playing poker, if you know what cards the other person is holding, you know how far to go with the bet. And you can put in a variety of human and technical counter surveillance methods that would have allowed detection as well as prevention. I think if you come to the point where you can’t protect people, then you tell them, but at the end of the day, the alert, that’s not helping.
RAY SUAREZ: Sara Daly, was there, as Larry Johnson suggests, another way to accomplish hardening those financial targets that were identified without going to the new threat status?
SARA DALY: Well, I think — I agree with everything he said. I think we should do all those things, all of those things are important. And I’m sure that we are doing them right now. But I still don’t think based on all this information we should have kept that from the American public. I still think it’s important to raise awareness. Even though we can still continue to take these measures, I still think we need to bring this to the American public’s attention.
RAY SUAREZ: Earlier cry wolf syndrome was mentioned and threat fatigue, but when nothing happens, when there are repeated warnings, where it’s not clear what the public is supposed to do in response, is there an effect whether you get less response with each subsequent one?
SARA DALY: I think there is, but it’s rarely the case that you’re ever going to get a situation in which, you know, we confirm the fact that we’ve prevented an attack just by coming out and saying so. I think that, you know, you’re going to continue to have a situation where you’re going to have to make a judgment call. I think in this case they had a lot of information. They had current indications that al-Qaida was planning an attack before the November elections and they had to make a judgment call. I think in this case it was the right judgment to make.
RAY SUAREZ: What about that idea, Larry, that it’s always better to err on the side of giving the public more information rather than less, that a forewarned and educated public is one that’s better situated?
LARRY JOHNSON: That’s true if you can give them something specific to do other than be alert, but I’ve been in a situation. I was involved with the Pan Am 103, the whole aftermath of that where the question was, did the U.S. Government had information that it didn’t tell people? I think there are very good reasons to keep some of this information back. And let’s look at what is going on. The reason we have this information is because we’re rolling up al-Qaida networks, individuals in possession of these files are being arrested, in some cases have been killed. They’re in custody not only in Pakistan, in Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom. If we were facing a different situation where we were getting signal intelligence and intercept and we didn’t know where these people were, that would be one thing, but when we’re getting the information by taking down these networks, I think that reduces the risk.
The reality here is I don’t know why the Bush administration is stepping on its good news story. They’re actually having significant success in breaking up the al-Qaida network. Now, one difference with Ms. Townsend — the National Security Council, we talked about great cooperation with Pakistan. That’s not true. Pakistan is still restricting the movement of U.S. troops and will not allow us into the sanctuaries just across the border in Pakistan. Part of what I think we have to look at these arrests. The Pakistanis are giving us some people to try to placate us.
There are still other elements of that al-Qaida network out there we need to wrap up. We need to put the pressure on Pakistan to get that done.
SARA DALY: I still think we have to have trust in our institution. If we’re constantly questioning the intelligence information that’s coming out and questioning whether or not they made the right decision in coming to the American public, I think it’s time; it’s going to undermine our trust in our institutions. We have to keep in mind that there is information they have that we don’t know about. And there is still intelligence information and analysis is going on in these agencies like the CIA that we are not privy to. So I think to some extent we have to thus trust our institution and know that they’ve learned something from this threat alert process.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me jump in there because when Tom Ridge made the announcement that the threat level was being raised for these specific areas, he said, “we have new and unusually specific information about where al-Qaida would like to attack.” Now, I’m going to assume that he didn’t choose those words accidentally. Not “is prepared to attack” “is going to attack” but “would like to attack.” For you does that cross the threshold of where it’s legitimate to get that word out, a wish list?
SARA DALY: I mean, like I said, I think there’s still a lot we don’t know about where al-Qaida is in its planning cycle. Given all this information and all this new information about where al-Qaida would like to attack versus where it’s going to, I don’t think we’re ever … it’s very rare to get specific intelligence on where they’re going to attack, not only the target but the timing. That’s very rare. So I think they made a judgment call in this case. I think it was the right one given the new information about all the places they would like to attack.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let’s talk further about that because Americans heard the phrase “actionable intelligence” a lot earlier this year. And where is that line? When we find something out about what al-Qaida would like to do, is in the process of planning to do, is that something that should be kept under wraps until we have what you described earlier, a plan, a funding source, an infrastructure?
LARRY JOHNSON: We can break the news on the NewsHour tonight. Al-Qaida wants to use nuclear weapons. They would like to do that. Al-Qaida would like to use chemical and biological weapons if they could get it; they would like to do that but wanting to is not the same as being able to. Thank God. I would like to win the Powerball but the chances of that are real slim. That’s why we have to go out and to disrupt these networks.
What we’ve seen this year so far, you know, remember in December, we had the most serious intelligence since 9/11, and that threat dissipated. In January we get the threat against aviation, the most serious threat, we’re told, since 9/11. That dissipated with no action, no apparent threat and no arrest of people involved. We had similar warnings that we might have serious information three weeks ago. My concern is this: That the administration keeps going to that well and raising the alert flag because of things that could happen instead of waiting until they get something that shows there’s likely to be an attack.
For example, if we get intelligence that says, people are going to put bombs on subways, we don’t know which cities, but they’re going to put bombs on subways in the United States, at least Tom Ridge could come out and say, look, this is the threat, they’re going to put bombs probably in knapsacks on subways. We need you to be alert. Here’s what we want you to do. If you see somebody leave a package, immediately notify… that’s the kind of information I am talking about, where people know what they can do. But right now, stay at home, be alert, that doesn’t help.
SARA DALY: I think the assumption was that we did have specific threat information that al-Qaida was planning to attack right before the November elections. And I think given this information about the new targets they might want to attack, the assumption was the analysis was from the intelligence community, it could be these specific targets. So I disagree. I mean, I think there was actionable intelligence. Whether you’re going to get that very specific information that couples it with perfect timing, it’s just, it’s very rare.
LARRY JOHNSON: When we’re talking actionable, again, if you have got… if you’ve identified — they’ve looked specifically at surveilling these buildings as possible targets, then you can do things behind the scenes without going to the public because I come back again, what are you asking people to do? What is it that you want people to do? The average citizen out there, they trust their government. They’re willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt. Just tell us what to do.
RAY SUAREZ: Okay. Let’s get an answer to that question. What should people do?
SARA DALY: Well, I think in this particular case, they were trying to gear it towards people in those specific location, the Citigroup Banks, the World Bank, so they weren’t talking about the American population as a whole. They were talking about the possible targets and the individuals in those specific institutions, and so I think they were telling them to be aware, not the public as a whole.
LARRY JOHNSON: But a reaction to this, Ray, is setting up the ultimate cyber terrorist attack where in the future all a terrorist has to do is put together an elaborate plan, well-produced with some key graphics, showing that they know about a target, have surveilled it and then put a threat in it; all they have to do is phone it in, and then we start shutting down cities. They don’t even have to do anything and put themselves at risk of getting captured. What we’re seeing is that they can shut down cities.
RAY SUAREZ: Larry Johnson, Sara Daly, thank you both.
LARRY JOHNSON: Thank you.
SARA DALY: Thank you.