Ridge Points to Al Qaeda File Use

Times Staff Writer

Bush administration officials Tuesday defended their decision to raise the terrorism threat level this week, saying that Al Qaeda operatives had reviewed and used the terrorist network’s computerized surveillance files in recent months.

Concerned that the operatives were plotting to blow up financial institutions in the United States, government authorities raced to identify the possible participants, both here and overseas, who they said had reviewed the surveillance materials.

“We know this is a terrorist organization that does its homework. Al Qaeda often plans well, well in advance,” Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told business leaders gathered at one of the buildings said to be targeted, the Citigroup Center in New York City. “We also know that they like to update their information before a potential attack.”


The administration’s effort to identify the operatives was prompted by evidence seized during the recent capture of several Al Qaeda members in Pakistan. One of them, a computer-savvy operative named Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, provided authorities with a “treasure trove” of evidence, including surveillance reports on at least five financial institutions, U.S. officials said.

The detailed surveillance files, relayed by Pakistan to authorities in Washington late last week, helped trigger Sunday’s elevation of the terrorism threat level -- from “yellow,” or elevated, to “orange,” or high -- in New York; Newark, N.J.; and the nation’s capital. Authorities realized that the files documented Al Qaeda efforts from as far back as 2000 to scout the institutions as potential targets.

The timing of the announcement, three days after the end of the Democratic National Convention, prompted speculation that the decision to raise the threat level was in part politically motivated.

Ridge emphatically denied that politics had anything to do with it.

“We don’t do politics in the Department of Homeland Security,” Ridge said. “Our job is to identify the threat.”

As U.S. forensic computer experts scrutinized the surveillance files and other evidence, they discovered e-mails between suspected Al Qaeda operatives, reports written by at least one suspected member of the terrorist network and indications that others had recently viewed the files, one U.S. intelligence official said.

“We have streams of intelligence information that indicates that this [surveillance] information has been accessed and used recently,” said the intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It wasn’t that this information was some dusty file sitting on a shelf.”

The files show that Al Qaeda conducted extensive surveillance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington, the Citigroup Center and the New York Stock Exchange in New York City and the headquarters of Prudential Financial Inc. in Newark. The files also contained less detailed information on about 15 other buildings, authorities said.

Authorities have concluded that the information contained in the files goes beyond mere surveillance, and there is little disagreement within the U.S. intelligence community about its value.

“We have evidence to suggest Al Qaeda was using the information contained in the extensive casing reports,” the official said, declining to elaborate because the information is classified. He described it as being “somewhere in between” specific terrorist plans and more general “plotting” efforts.

The official said the information about Al Qaeda operatives accessing the surveillance files comes from several intelligence sources, including from interrogations of Khan and other recently captured militants, as well as from seized computers and other documentation.

The intelligence official and other authorities said that at least some of the information was encoded or even encrypted, and that they did not know the identities of the suspected operatives or even such basic information as where they were now and when, if ever, they were in the United States.

“We’re trying to identify who those people are and how they are using it, absolutely,” the intelligence official said, referring to the surveillance files.

“We have a pretty good sense of who they are, in terms of being terrorists.”

Disclosure of the ongoing manhunt came as Ridge visited the Citigroup building to view the heightened security steps taken by local, state and federal law enforcement.

In a speech to business leaders, Ridge said that “it was essential” for the government to publicize the newly gained intelligence information. He also defended the decision to raise the terrorism alert on a localized basis, despite the cost to law enforcement authorities who were required to intensify protective measures.

Ridge acknowledged that the Al Qaeda files about the financial institutions provided no definitive indications that terrorist operatives had recently visited the buildings to update their surveillance. But he insisted that the threat was real, saying the files -- combined with other recent intelligence -- offered alarming indications about the terrorist network’s preoccupation with launching another attack on U.S. soil.

Although much of the surveillance dated back to 2000, Ridge said, some of it had been updated as recently as January of this year.

“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 2 or 3 years old,” he said.

The White House’s internal domestic security advisor, Fran Townsend, also spoke publicly Tuesday to defend the decision to raise the threat level and to confirm that at least some of the Al Qaeda files had been accessed recently.

“From what we know of Al Qaeda’s method ... they do them years in advance and then update them before they actually launch the attack,” Townsend said.