Foiling the Plots

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Police officers search a truck entering Manhattan from Brooklyn

Since Sept. 11, the President and other U.S. leaders have urged Americans not to act as though the sky is falling. They have said we should be alert, but they have also told us to get out and see a movie, order a steak, maybe fly to see Aunt Lisa in Palm Springs. Behind the mixed message is a question: How can we strike a balance between watching for future attacks and getting on with normal life?

Those investigating Sept. 11 have been asking themselves that same question: Should they do what American law enforcers have been trained to do — work methodically to build airtight cases against the perpetrators of crimes — or shift their efforts instead to preventing future terrorist plots? It is a difficult question — quickly snaring a suspect means you can't watch him conspire and may not uncover all his confederates — but any debate over it within federal law-enforcement agencies ended Thursday. That evening the President told a prime-time TV audience that "the FBI must think differently." Attorney General John Ashcroft told abc that if the FBI had to choose between prosecuting a case against terrorist suspects and moving quickly to stop them, he would sacrifice prosecutions in the interest of public safety.

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That same day the bureau acted as both constable and town crier, warning that "there may be additional terrorist attacks within the United States ... over the next several days." Bush Administration officials had been telling members of Congress, police chiefs and reporters for weeks that further attacks by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network were virtually certain. But now the government was telling the people directly: We're in danger. As if to underscore the point, the Web address for the warning included the code "skyfall," before the bureau changed it. A young aide had chosen the blunt word only so she could find the statement easily on her computer, but there was no doubt that her fears were also ours.

Ashcroft and his aides would not reveal precisely what information prompted their extraordinary alert. But senior officials say the raw data underlying the warning came from an overseas source developed by the CIA and buttressed by snippets of information gleaned through other intelligence efforts around the world. Without offering any specifics, the source — whose reliability is still uncertain — warned that al-Qaeda will strike at any moment. As an official puts it, the information may or may not be credible, "but nobody's going to take a chance."

Though some suggested that the anthrax scare of last week in fact constituted the second wave of attacks that authorities had been expecting, most investigators doubted it. Round 2, they fear, is yet to come. "My opinion, shaped on years of experience, is that it's coming," says an Administration counterterrorism official. The CIA actually quantifies such probabilities, the official says. The agency tabulates what it calls "Indications and Warnings" (I+Ws, in government-speak), and when the I+Ws reach a certain number, the alarms sound. That's what happened prior to the FBI's public warning last week.

Federal law-enforcement officials tell Time that the FBI is expected to issue another alert this week, pointing to possible terrorist activity on Thursday, Oct. 18. That's the day four al-Qaeda associates convicted of bombing the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 are due to be sentenced. While neither the FBI nor the intelligence agencies have specific information that the bin Laden organization plans to attack then, analysts believe terrorists may find the moment irresistible. But U.S. officials also recognize that a strike may not come that day, just as nothing happened on Oct. 12, the one-year anniversary of the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole.

Even without specific intelligence, Washington officials believe the general threat level will remain high for the foreseeable future. That's in part because of bin Laden. Administration officials believe he may have surreptitiously issued a Go order for a second strike in his videotaped message broadcast Oct. 7. Intelligence sources tell Time that analysts scrutinizing the video have zeroed in on one sentence at the end: "I swear to God that America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine, and before all the army of infidels depart the land of Muhammad." A former al-Qaeda follower has told U.S. intelligence officials that bin Laden would not normally use the locution "I swear to God" in making his declaration against the U.S. That may mean it was a signal. Bin Laden's public statements "are often used for more than one purpose," says an intelligence official. Agents are looking at words and phrases from previous diatribes and comparing them with the latest videos to see if anything else jumps out.

What are the terrorists planning? No one is sure, but FBI officials are concerned about strikes against sporting events, concerts, theme parks and rallies (though the e-mail chains asserting a plot against malls on Halloween aren't credible, authorities say). The FBI and other agencies have contacted colleges and pro-sports organizations like the NFL to ask them to be watchful. In addition, investigators are worried about iconic American structures such as the Capitol (which has banned large trucks from its vicinity), the Statue of Liberty (closed since Sept. 11) and the Sears Tower (which is working on upgrading the security for its ventilation system).

Though most of the fears of recent weeks have centered on biological and chemical attacks, many investigators believe something more mundane (and easier) is planned. The FBI has focused increasingly on trucks as vehicles for terrorism. Al-Qaeda operatives used trucks in the Kenya and Tanzania attacks. And U.S. roads are jammed with bombs on wheels — 30,000 vehicles that transport poisonous gas, toxic liquids, petroleum products and explosives. Drivers of rigs hauling dangerous loads must have both a commercial driver's license and a hazardous-material (haz-mat) endorsement from a state, but those credentials are no more difficult to acquire than a pilot's license.

FBI agents and other law enforcers have contacted or visited dozens of the 600 truck-driving schools across the U.S. and are seeking enrollment records going back as far as 1994. Some have asked for records of only students with Middle Eastern names or students who paid in cash, received haz-mat permits or abruptly quit their training. Some agents have shown pictures of the 19 hijackers to determine if they attended classes. Others have asked for lists of student names to be checked against the Federal Government's terrorist watch lists.

A trucking-school executive has given the FBI a promising lead: 25 to 35 Arab men attended a Denver school in small groups over the past two years. Each student paid cash for the program — and none sought job placement afterward. Because none of the students spoke English, they were accompanied by an interpreter, the same person for each group. Even though English proficiency is a license requirement, all the Arab students received driver's licenses, trucking sources say. (It's not clear how they passed the written test, which is in English.) Charlie Tweedy, the owner of Careers Worldwide, a truck-driving school in Denver, told Time that FBI agents have examined his files and interviewed his employees. But he denied that his company had taught non-English speakers.

If the FBI's efforts seem a bit frantic, it may be because the bureau is stumbling along an unfamiliar path. Moving from prosecuting crimes with rock-solid evidence to preventing crimes with hardly any evidence necessitates a cultural shift. "The FBI's instinct is to guard intelligence that is turned up during the course of an investigation, because by making it public, they're potentially destroying their case," says L. Paul Bremer, chairman of Congress's National Commission on Terrorism.

The bureau is also returning to a strategy, long out of fashion at the FBI, of detaining suspects for minor infractions as a preventive measure. "If we can find them spitting on the sidewalk, we're grabbing them," says a bureau official, "and trying to hold on to them until we can figure things out ... We're playing protective defense. We can't let it happen again." Attorney General Robert Kennedy used the "spitting on the sidewalk" strategy — prosecuting small-time offenses to bag big-time suspects — against the Mob. But the strategy began to disappear in the 1970s, when criminal-justice priorities shifted to protecting citizens' rights. Ashcroft has brought it back; as of Friday, some 700 people had been locked up as result of the Sept. 11 investigation — and "a couple hundred" more had been arrested overseas with FBI help. One of them, Algerian pilot Lotfi Raissi, arrested in London, has been charged with failing to report his previous knee surgery when applying for a pilot's license. "We have to use every tool available to us," says a top Justice Department official. "That includes detaining people, looking for violations, being aggressive."

And being wary — or even fearful. Some local law-enforcement officials think the FBI's public warning last Thursday, coming after repeated alarms on the nonpublic National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, was overblown. "Without a developed threat, the alert is difficult to operationalize," says Michael Jordan, public information coordinator of the St. Paul police department in Minnesota. "We can't go to double-heightened alert. We can't have all our officers working 24 hours a day."

Some say even that wouldn't be enough. "In a country of 250 million people, our vulnerabilities are essentially infinite," says Bremer of the National Commission on Terrorism. "No matter how good our intelligence is, no matter how much you change the FBI's culture, that is not going to be enough. The fundamental thing is to eradicate the terrorists." Which is why the most important work in preventing terrorism at home may be taking place abroad — in the mountains of Afghanistan, and in the efforts to freeze al-Qaeda–linked bank accounts around the globe.

— Reported by Massimo Calabresi, Elaine Shannon, Douglas Waller and Michael Weisskopf/Washington; Amanda Bower/New York; and Sarah Sturmon Dale/Minneapolis