Terrorism threat on rise, officials say
WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that the risk of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil has increased significantly in recent weeks, but there is deep disagreement among policymakers about whether to issue a general warning to the public about the danger, according to sources familiar with the debate.
The FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies have documented a rise in intelligence information over the last two weeks indicating an increased possibility of attacks. As a result, the FBI is planning to warn law enforcement agencies by today that there is a heightened danger of attack on apartment buildings, hotels and other "soft targets," according to sources who have seen draft copies of the bulletin.
A similarly wary assessment of heightened risk was issued by the CIA last week and circulated among senior U.S. intelligence officials, sources said. The warning also comes as FBI officials prepare to submit a classified report to Congress next week that concludes the al-Qaida terrorist network remains the most significant threat to domestic security, sources said.
But Bush administration officials are divided on the significance of the recent surge in threats reported by detainees or obtained by various intelligence methods and have been unable to reach agreement on how to respond, knowledgeable sources said.
Many intelligence analysts in the Pentagon and White House believe the surge in activity is cause for serious alarm, especially because the prospect of war with Saddam Hussein heightens the risk of attacks by Iraqi agents, al-Qaida operatives or others eager to take advantage of the political climate. Many of these officials favor issuing a general alert to the public sometime in the next week, sources said.
"When you start looking at the whole broad spectrum and look at it all together, you come up with a synergistic kind of thing that raises a whole lot of concern," said one Defense Department official. "There is a definite upswing in chatter out there about attacking our targets."
FBI and CIA officials have taken a more cautious position, however, arguing that the threat information — while clearly troubling — is vague and contains no specific, credible evidence of an impending attack, sources said. One Justice Department official said the volume of reports is larger than normal, but does not approach the levels seen in the days leading up to the July 4th holiday or to the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Many of these officials believe issuing a general terrorism alert would alarm the public without providing any usable information, and would be viewed with undue skepticism because of U.S. preparations for war with Iraq.
"There is some feeling that parts of the administration would like to push this to get people geared up" for Iraq, one law enforcement official said. "It's not that we've learned specific information that needs to be communicated to the public … If we did a public warning, it would have to be very general."
One defense official said the Defense Intelligence Agency has collected some information overseas indicating a possible attack within the United States. But FBI officials have not been able to confirm those reports and are skeptical of their veracity, the official said.
A decision on whether to issue a general alert has been delayed in part so the FBI and other authorities can investigate several specific threat reports that might be corroborated or discounted, either through interrogations of U.S. military detainees overseas or through traditional law enforcement work, one official said.
The nation's color-coded threat index remained at yellow Wednesday, signifying an elevated risk of terrorist attack. That level has been upgraded only once before to orange, which signifies a "high" risk of attack, and officials said there were no immediate plans to increase the level again.
"We remain concerned about continued al-Qaida activity overseas as well as al-Qaida sympathizers here in the United States," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for the threat index. "Should additional information and analysis develop requiring the threat level to be raised, we will keep the American public informed as always."