Thu, Aug 05, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Washington defends latest terror alerts

US SECURITY Facing criticism that the warnings were based on dated information, officials said they are following leads to determine whether the plot is current

AP , WASHINGTON

Police officers stop cars at a check point near the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, on Tuesday. Washington started checking all traffic around the Capitol after US Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced specific terrorist threats against 'iconic' sites in New York City, New Jersey and DC.

PHOTO: EPA

US Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge defended the decision to tighten security in New York and Washington even though the intelligence behind the latest terror warnings was as much as four years old.

Law enforcement officials were trying to determine whether the plot was current, with terrorists still trying to organize such an attack -- in an investigation made more urgent by revelations linking the suspect behind the intelligence with the 1998 bombings of US embassies in east Africa.

In those devastating truck bombings, al-Qaeda operatives had begun casing targets in Kenya almost five years in advance.

The warnings that terrorists might be plotting attacks on buildings in New York, Washington and Newark, New Jersey, have prompted authorities to elevate the terror alert level for the financial sector in those cities to orange, or high. Streets have been closed, with barricades erected and heavily armed police guarding potential targets.

The intelligence behind the warnings -- including hundreds of detailed surveillance photos, sketches and written documents -- came from sources including a seized laptop and computer discs and from interviews after the mid-July arrest of a young Pakistani computer engineer, Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan.

Federal investigators are working on the assumption that the plot is continuing, said a senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Two counterterrorism officials, also speaking anonymously, said information and evidence uncovered suggests that terrorists were recently using the information from surveillance activities.

And top Bush administration officials said pieces of the surveillance -- including images -- were apparently updated as recently as this January, although they offered no specific details.

"I think you have to keep in mind al-Qaeda's history of planning attacks well in advance and then updating those plans just before attacking," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, traveling with US President George W. Bush on a trip to Texas.

Administration officials denied any suggestion that raising the terror alert right after the Democratic National Convention was politically motivated. "We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security," Ridge said.

Sssential

He said it was essential to release the information, which had just been uncovered in Pakistan. Speaking at a news conference in New York, Ridge said that because of the heightened security steps, "we have made it much more difficult for the terrorists to achieve their broad objectives."

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who received a special intelligence briefing on the terror threat Sunday, ducked the question when asked whether he, as president, would have authorized his homeland security chief to issue the same warning as Ridge.

"Senator Kerry never comments directly or indirectly on the information he receives in intelligence briefings," spokeswoman Debra DeShong said Tuesday.

On Sunday, when the terror alert was issued -- mentioning the Citigroup Center building and the New York Stock Exchange in New York, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank buildings in Washington and Prudential Financial Inc's headquarters in Newark, New Jersey -- officials acknowledged that some of the information was at least several years old, some of it preceding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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