JIM LEHRER: The terror alert: We get an update from New York Times reporter David Johnston. David Johnston, welcome. Obviously there's been no attack today. Any signs of anything? Anything thwarted around the edges or anything new to report?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Counter terrorism officials have said that they've detected nothing today in the United States or in Yemen, which was the other location of the possible attack, but they also cautioned that this alert was good for today but is a continuing problem that they say could be with us for several additional days.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what was the genesis of this specific alert?
DAVID JOHNSTON: As we understand it now, some information of still an unclear nature in Afghanistan was communicated to a detainee in Cuba. And interviewers there, in questioning this detainee, determined that he had had a brother in Yemen and that this relative had described a possible terrorist attack and indicated that today or sometime around today might be the possible timing for an attack and the detainee identified a group of other people who might be involved.
JIM LEHRER: 16 people altogether, right?
DAVID JOHNSTON: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: Now what is known about who these people are, these 16 people?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Very little. Today Attorney General Ashcroft described some of them as possible al-Qaida followers, but authorities have been unable to provide any real biographical information about them. Most of them are Saudis; some are Yemeni, and their exact recent activities is really unknown. Authorities say that none of these people have been in the United States. They have not appeared as suspects in any other investigations, nor have they been identified elsewhere as al-Qaida members or members of other militant organizations.
JIM LEHRER: So that's what makes it even scarier than usual? Is that the point?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I think that's part of it. I think the unknown nature of these people, along with the very specific sense of the time of this event and the people involved, made it different than the three other alerts that were... Have been previously issued by the FBI warning of possible terrorist actions.
JIM LEHRER: Now, in terms of the possible terrorist attack, was there anything about, well, it might be an airliner, it may be a bomb in a suitcase, it may be against a... some kind of nuclear plant? Was it target specific at all?
DAVID JOHNSTON: There was no specific target. There was no real specific place other than the United States or Yemen. Today some officials are saying that they thought that the threat might have been greater in Yemen against American interests than in the United States, but no indication of the nature of an attack or really precisely where it might take place.
JIM LEHRER: Or what kind of terrorist weapons might be used.
DAVID JOHNSTON: What kind of weapon might be involved, very unclear. In Yemen, of course, in the port of Aden in October 2000 was the suicide attack on the destroyer Cole, which killed a number of American sailors.
JIM LEHRER: So when they say U.S. Interests in Yemen, they're talking about what, our embassy, a few things like that.
DAVID JOHNSTON: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: There's not very much U.S. interest there.
DAVID JOHNSTON: But there are some American... There are people there and there are some American facilities there, and there still are... There's an American naval presence there.
JIM LEHRER: David, what does your reporting reflect the impact or the reaction to this alert has been around the United States among law enforcement and other officials?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I think law enforcement officials have already been both on a formal state of alert from one that was issued in January but also on a higher state of alert because of events like the Olympics, which have created higher security measures at airports and border crossings and ports of entry. I think most people have basically taken this in stride, and they've heard this before. And what we're hearing is that a lot of people are not terribly shocked or worried by this alert, and they're going on about their normal course of business. I think that the sense of alert though reflects a very high degree of concern at very senior levels of the United States' government about the possibility of an additional terrorist attack by al-Qaida or other followers of Osama bin Laden, particularly after the fall of Afghanistan, there's a sense that whatever remnants of al-Qaida is left may be seeking to strike a U.S. target.
JIM LEHRER: I notice that your newspaper, the "Washington Post" and other major newspapers today led the paper with it. So that was a reflection, at least in your editor's judgment, that this was an important matter as well.
DAVID JOHNSTON: I think that's right. The sense of the precise timing of this alert reflected a discussion that was going on at the FBI and other counter terrorism agencies around the government yesterday, and the decision made by Robert Muller, the FBI Director, last evening after a day of consultation with the Saudis, with the Yemenis, with other U.S. agencies was that the government could not sit on information that might, if it's known to Americans, might help protect lives.
JIM LEHRER: Was it your impression that this information suddenly came in the last 24 hours or 48 hours or had it been... was it being developed over a period of days?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I think our information at this stage-- and it's somewhat unclear-- is that the information from the detainee in Cuba has come to the United States in the last several days, but it was yesterday when the consultations with the Saudis and the Yemenis produced photographs, a number of aliases for these people and the information and the sense of threat and the specificity of the timing reached a kind of critical mass that prompted the FBI to issue this warning last night.
JIM LEHRER: Now almost 24 hours has gone by since the warning was issued, but it's not... Nobody should consider this over, correct?
DAVID JOHNSTON: That's right. But typically, the government does not cancel or say officially these alerts are no longer in effect. So what we are likely to see is really no additional information or additional information about a greater detail about the nature of the threat in the next few days.
JIM LEHRER: And life will go on until they issue another alert.
DAVID JOHNSTON: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: David Johnston, thank you very much.
DAVID JOHNSTON: Thank you.