The Finer Points of the L.A. Terror Plot

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JIM WATSON / AFP / GETTY

President Bush speaks at the National Guard Memorial Building in Washington

As Navy warships motored into international waters off the coast of Yemen to aid in the search for Al Qaeda escapees, President George W. Bush stood before paintings of Revolutionary War Minutemen Thursday and touted the success of international cooperation in the war on terror. In his speech to the National Guard Association in Washington, Bush revealed new details about a foiled 2002 Al Qaeda plan to use "shoe bombs" to hijack a commercial airplane and fly it into the tallest building on the West Coast — a Los Angeles skyscraper that intelligence analysts later determined was the Library Tower, now named the U.S. Bank Tower. Later in the day, counter-terrorism czar Frances Fragos Townsend told reporters that two South Asian and two Southeast Asian countries had helped arrest all four cell leaders planning the attack, which was designed as a follow up to 9/11 and originally revealed in 2003. Townsend said all four cell leaders are still in custody, although she wouldn’t specify where.

But at the same time the Administration was chest-thumping about this victory in the war on terror, Townsend had to acknowledge that it is grappling with one of the worst examples of non-cooperation. Over the weekend, 13 convicted Al Qaeda members being held in a Yemeni jail escaped, including the reputed mastermind of the October 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole. Townsend acknowledged that the jailbreak is "of enormous concern to us, especially given the capabilities and the expertise of the people who were there." All 13 had been housed together, she said, and "we are disappointed that their restrictions in prison weren't more stringent." When asked why the U.S. wasn't keeping closer tabs on how the Al Qaeda prisoners were being incarcerated in Yemen, a U.S. law enforcement official said, "that assumes the Yemenis care what we think."

Still, the U.S., which has been caught off guard by everything from the flooding of New Orleans to the victory of Hamas, seemed stupefied to discover that the Yemenis were allowing the Al Qaeda prisoners to be housed together and to communicate freely. The lax security measures stand in sharp contrast to the isolation of prisoners kept at American-controlled facilities in Guantanamo Bay and around the globe. For its part, the Embassy of Yemen in Washington, D.C., did not return calls for comment. The U.S. is working closely with Saudi Arabia to find the escapees, said Townsend, a number of which Saudi Arabia itself had turned over to Yemen. The escape, said Townsend, is "a great, if not a greater, threat" to Saudi Arabia.

The timing of the foiled plot's disclosure, coming as it did as the Administration defends its controversial wiretapping program, struck many observers as more than a little curious. According to Townsend, the White House declassified the details of the 2002 plot because most of the leads in the investigation had been exhausted. A senior Administraion official brushed aside the notion that the speech was timed to this week's grilling of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over the NSA program, noting that today's speech has been in the works since last year. "It takes forever to sign off on declassification," the official said. Townsend wouldn't confirm or deny if the NSA wiretapping, first revealed by The New York Times, has been used to foil the Los Angeles attack. But another senior Administration official told TIME: "The speech was about international cooperation and to show that actions taken have real consequences." Said the official, "You intrepid journalists can deduce whether there's a connection between the NSA program and [the West coast plot]. Was there a domestic component?" The answer, given that all the alleged cell leaders were captured overseas, would seem to be no. But at a time when the Administration is defending the wiretapping program by stressing how perilous the post 9/11 world is, nothing drives home the point like a foiled attack so close to home.