RAY SUAREZ: In the past few weeks, U.S. Intelligence officials have been issuing warnings about possible terrorist attacks in this country. Among other things, they point to a higher volume of communications or chatter by suspected terrorists. And yesterday, FBI officials alerted hospitals in four U.S. cities about possible bombing or anthrax attacks. Today, a White House spokesman played down that warning.
To discuss how governments obtain and then deal with terror threats, we get three perspectives. Earl Freilino is director of Pennsylvania's Homeland Security Office. John Hamre was Deputy Secretary of Defense during the Clinton administration. He's now the President of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And James Bamford, author of Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency. James Bamford, let's start with you. What is chatter?
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, chatter, a lot of times they can't understand what the terrorists are saying but they can see the pattern of information, the pattern or flow of the communications. On an average Tuesday there might be 50 communications between different cells, but on a particular day they're looking at there maybe 150. So they don't know exactly when or where something may take place but they do know something bad may happen because there is a great deal of more additional communications between these groups of people.
RAY SUAREZ: What's monitored? Cell phones, land lines? Satellite phones? E-mail? What's the constituent parts of this chatter?
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, the NSA, which is the nation's large eavesdropping agency basically, tries to pick up as much communication as possible. An average listening post, for example--and there are dozens of listening posts around the world--pick up about two million pieces of communication an hour. That's telephone calls, the e-mail, faxes, data transmissions, and then they use filters to try to pull out just what the information is that they want. They want information that's to and from these cells or to and from certain people in Kandahar or in Afghanistan or Kabul or in Yemen, and they use these filters to try to pull out the key information that they've been looking for. So you're taking enormous volumes of information and trying to winnow it down to just the types of communications you want. And a lot of these people communicate fairly regularly.
Some other people don't communicate very often at all. That's what they look for is when the pattern changes, that's when there may be danger in the near horizon. Before September 11, there were several times when the volume increased tremendously. They weren't able to pin down exactly when or where the terrorist incident was going to take place but they were aware that there was probably something that was going to be happening in the near future.
RAY SUAREZ: So when you're talking about communications that number in the millions of individual communications, can we assume that these are not really translated, checked for content, sifted in a fine grained kind of way but really just sort of spot checked?
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, it has to be just spot checked because there's such a volume out there. In addition, NSA has been having a problem with getting adequate linguists in recent years. So what they try to do is narrow it down to the key communications. Prior to September 11, for example, on September 10, the NSA picked up two pieces of communications from suspected terrorists. And they gave an indication that something was going to happen. That wasn't even translated until after the event, after September 11. So they're always looking for the key leaders of al-Qaida, the people who are in some of the cells to communicate. Sometimes they can find out what they're saying. Sometimes they can't. But even if they can't find out what they're saying, if they communicate in a different pattern or they're communicating a lot all at once, then that might indicate that there is something that's about to happen.
RAY SUAREZ: So, John Hamre, whoever is watching this stuff calls you on the phone and says wow we have just had a spike in the number of communications in this pool that we normally monitor; there's a lot of chatter out there. What happens to that information? Where does it go next?
JOHN HAMRE: Well, the government has positioned methods by which the data that comes in from various sources-- not just from listening posts but from embassy and foreign liaison sources, other intelligence sources, police authorities, et cetera-- they'll report it into the government. I think important to say though is that there's very little precise content to this reporting. I mean, very little idea about what it is that you're confronting. We just recently did an exercise that simulated exactly this kind of a thing. The problem is you don't really know... the government doesn't really know what's under attack, what will be attacked, when, where, how? None of that is very clear in this background information that comes to them. So the problem for the government isn't that you get a lot of information but that you get a lot of information with no precision and doesn't give an idea of how to act.
RAY SUAREZ: Given the lack of precision but given that you've identified this spike, who needs to know?
JOHN HAMRE: Well, law enforcement and intelligence agencies need to know for purposes of trying to further refine their ability to stop the terrorists. But so too does the broader community need to know that something is happening but here the government has a central problem: How do you tell people to do things when you don't know yourself what's going to happen? And how do you tell them to do things without frightening them because you don't know what's going to happen? I mean that's the central dilemma that the government has all the time. It is the central ambiguity of the homeland defense problem.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Earl Freilino, presumably you're in the chain then, in Pennsylvania you get the word that there's been such a spike. With this latest warning it's involved hospitals in Washington, Houston, Chicago, California. So maybe you're not directly implicated but what do you do with that information?
EARL FREILINO: Well, the first thing I'd like to say is regarding the hospital threat, my understanding is that it was uncorroborated and unreliable. I'd like to make that clear. But the previous gentleman I totally agree with. When you get ambiguous threats, how do we respond to those? That's exactly what we're trying to do in Pennsylvania. We believe that the public, if armed, the private sector, and law enforcement receive information they report it appropriately and we can act on it. What is that information--suspicious behavior. We're finding that's one of the greatest weaknesses, weak links in this process. We're partnering as states to follow poem exhibiting that suspicious behavior.
I'll give you an example of that. In New York City not long ago three people were taking pictures, allegedly fishermen, of ferry boats crossing to a professional sports stadium. Police stopped them, asked them what they were doing. We're just fishermen. When they broke down the story, it didn't look like they were ever there before or really were fishermen. In fact, when they went the next day, the apartment in which the three lived was vacated. Where did these people go? They were tracked to Pennsylvania and another state. Two of them were out of status by immigration. The one in Pennsylvania was of course apprehended and sent out of the country as was another. By following these people, they're not going to stop but we're going to follow them, working with states, between states, from the citizen who reports the suspicious activity through the law enforcement, through the FBI's joint terrorism task force. It's one way to counter this activity.
RAY SUAREZ: But what you've described would seem to be just alert police work. When you're given intelligence from another source, do these sort of general warnings have any value for you?
EARL FREILINO: General warnings per se may not have value but there's context that one needs. Some of this context can come from even public source data. Overseas they publish a great deal more information than we do in our own country, things that we would classify here or overseas and that includes the activities, the modus operandi, things of that nature that people do overseas when they're attacking a certain physical or cyber infrastructure. If we make this clear to our private sector, to our police when these general, uncorroborated threats come out of the kinds of behavior that they see and if it's reported, it's a way of countering it.
RAY SUAREZ: Now the White House just to clarify on the hospital warning did report that it felt it was of low value. That intelligence was passed on by the Houston Office of the FBI, but I guess it brings up the question, John Hamre, whether you pass along everything that seems to have some level of plausibility just in case.
JOHN HAMRE: That clearly is the dilemma the government faces. The government can't not act. It has to do something but what does it say when I doesn't know what will happen? And it's the dilemma that they face every day, try to make a judgment. Is this sufficiently credible that we ought to pass it on and what can people do if we do pass it on? They receive concern warnings daily. Many, many indications, and most of them they judge to not be credible. I do not know the circumstances on the hospital. It doesn't sound to me basically credible at the outset. Terrorists don't tend to attack the strong points of their enemy. They try to go to their weak points. You don't use anthrax on the hospital. You use anthrax some place where they're not suspecting it. So that probably was a good call that it wasn't central but somebody decided they had to report something. In a time where people are worried about being criticized for failure to act it creates extra sensitivity but sometimes I think that's going to be confusing to the public.
RAY SUAREZ: James Bamford is this country more ready for the kinds of attacks we've been warned about than they were over a year ago?
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, I think it is a bit more ready but the problem we have is that there are so many surprises that keep coming up. We didn't know about the bombing in Bali before it took place. We had an assassination in Jordan that was a total surprise. The tanker, French tanker off of Yemen was attacked, and that was a surprise. The FBI a month ago or so was talking about the fact that the odds are that bin Laden is dead and now we find out that he's alive. So even though we've increased the budget and increased the manpower and increased all the authorities of the intelligence agencies we don't seem to be getting a lot better in knowing what's going on out there.
RAY SUAREZ: Earl Freilino, as a state director, can you say Pennsylvania is a lot better prepared to withstand this kind of attack?
EARL FREILINO: I would have to say, yes, we are. There are things in place today that weren't in place September 11. I'll give some examples. Pennsylvania has a version of the national electronic disease surveillance system. 230 hospitals, 180 labs and eventually all 50,000 physicians will be on it. Whereby diseases are reported immediately, put on an automated digital basis and then analyzed to see if it's bad natural or bad terrorist. Pennsylvania didn't stop there. We have a research project in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia of hospitals for syndromes; that is, people come into an emergency room and they feel sick through nausea, headaches, rashes. That's a trip wire that gives us an extra edge against bioterrorism. But we didn't stop with that either. In that study we're looking at pharmaceutical companies and over-the-counter drugs because the first place a person usually goes when ill is to the pharmacy. If it's not flu season and a lot of flu over-the-counter drugs are sold, obviously we have a problem. This is going to extend to 150 hospitals in Pennsylvania. We're better prepared in that regard than we were September 1.
That's not the only area. How about port security? Right now Pennsylvania is doing a research project regarding our ports wherein we start the study of ports and products from thousands of miles away at the port of origin of ships, crews and containers and follow it the entire way through Philadelphia and the containers to the end product, to the end users. That gives security to the consumer and America. This wasn't in place. These are just some of the many programs that we have in place now or are working to get in place that weren't there before September 11.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Earl Freilino, director of Pennsylvania's Homeland Security Service, John Hamre, James Bamford, gentlemen, thank you all.