How the White House Tracked the Terror Plot

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White House officials had been tracking the British terror plot for weeks, supplying advice and intelligence to both Prime Minister Tony Blair's government and to Pakistan, where suspects have also been arrested. But it was not until Aug. 1 or 2, administration officials said, that investigators discovered U.S. travelers were the target. President George W. Bush's daily intelligence briefings immediately became longer, and came to include more participants.

"The President was very, very clear about his priorities," one aide recalled, adding that those included assistance to the British, cooperation within the U.S. government and protection for passengers. Administration officials said the FBI and CIA, which have had trouble working and playing well with each other, dovetailed better than they have on any crisis in years.

Various U.S. intelligence and security agencies could have taken charge of tracking the plot and planning new restrictions on U.S. travelers, but Bush kept the job in-house. His point person was Frances Fragos Townsend, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, a former New York City prosecutor of Mafia and white-collar crime. Bush had turned to her as one of his most trusted aides — she had led the White House's "lessons learned" inquest into Hurricane Katrina — and so, instead of the week she had planned car-pooling her 4- and 11-year-old sons to camp and taking her eldest to a Yankees game, she found herself managing the U.S. government’s response to a terror crisis.

The President told Townsend he wanted to ensure accountability with an elaborate record of the White House response and deliberations. Townsend kept that record in a bulging red folder on her desk and a single-spaced, minute-by-minute annotation of her Outlook calendar pages. Bush also ordered early and thorough briefings for congressional leaders, and Townsend made sure they occurred, according to witnesses.

Bush was receiving his intelligence briefings by secure video teleconference to his ranch in Crawford, Tex., and also convened a couple of meetings of his Homeland Security Council in conjunction with his daily brief. The Situation Room is undergoing a months-long renovation, so participants back in Washington met in front of the big screen in Deputy Chief of Staff Joseph Hagin's office. Some of the sessions were held in the adjoining Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and aides finally moved back to the Roosevelt Room after they had trouble with the audio in the EEOB.

According to participants, White House officials debated two chief points while they were waiting for what they called the "takedown" by the British:

  • How long the U.S. should wait before insisting that the Brits move against the terrorist cell. Several officials said the President wanted to be sure that the authorities did not wait any longer than they have to, prolonging the danger for American fliers, since any change in inspection protocols at airports would have immediately tipped off the terrorists. But intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic were gaining valuable data by watching the cell. "The President said we needed to be asking ourselves every day and every hour if we were striking the right balance between intelligence value versus security risk," an aide said.

  • How abrupt an adjustment to make to the Administration's color-coded alert system. Britain went to "critical," the equivalent of red in the U.S. system, for the whole country. The U.S. went to red ("severe") only for flights from Britain and to orange, one step below, for other commercial flights to and within the United States. Officials said that the White House at first considered a broader upgrade, perhaps including all transportation in the orange upgrade, but rejected that. "You don't want to unduly burden people or alarm them, because that desensitizes them to the threat," the aide said.

    By early last week, White House officials realized because of what one called "acquisition of materials" by the terrorists that the wrap-up of the plot was likely days away rather than weeks, as they had thought. The information was still incredibly tightly held among Bush's national and homeland security team. Townsend asked the President if she could "read in" Counselor Dan Bartlett because she and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wanted his advice about what would be said publicly. Bush instantly agreed and Townsend went up to his second floor office at midday Monday and spent an hour and 20 minutes telling him what was going down.

    On Tuesday morning, Townsend got permission to tell two Transportation Department officials and two Federal Aviation Administration honchos. Townsend talked constantly to the British security service representative stationed at the embassy in Washington. She stayed in touch with No. 10 Downing Street on what's called "the red switch" — an actual red phone, a Cisco Internet phone that sits on her desk and provides a live Internet tie to her British counterpart.

    "We could see the plot was getting closer to the phase where the cell was going to actually try to execute it," a Bush official said. At lunchtime Wednesday, the British said the arrests would probably come by the end of the week. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked for a heads-up so the U.S. embassy in London could be prepared to help vacationers and expatriates.

    At lunchtime Wednesday, the British said the roundup would probably come by the end of the week. Then at 3:45 p.m. that afternoon, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte gave Townsend startling news. Pakistan had just arrested one of the suspects, and the U.S. team quickly concluded, as one official recalled, that the development would cause the British to "think that their investigation was in jeopardy — that what happened might be alerting to the targets in the United Kingdom."

    At 3:55 p.m., Townsend picked up a secure line and called President George W. Bush in Crawford, Tex. Even though she had not yet heard from the British, she predicted — correctly, it turned out — that raids would start that evening. Shortly before 5, with national security officials meeting around the conference table in her low-ceilinged, windowless office in the West Wing basement, the "red switch" to No. 10 Downing Street rang. Struggling to hear, Townsend climbed under her desk to take notes on the upcoming sweep. She was so engrossed in the call that she forgot about her visitors until she looked up and could see several of them smiling at her amusing posture. FBI Director Robert Mueller joshed, "It's a good thing you're wearing pants!"