Measuring the Threat

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NEW NORMALCY: National Guardsmen keep watch of the nation's bridges

They were, in some small way, supposed to make us feel more secure and informed, perhaps even confident in our leaders. But by the time officials had ringed nuclear power plants with armed roadblocks and West Coast commuters had begun detouring around some bridges, the latest round of terrorist-attack warnings—from Washington's vague bulletin to California's detailed advisory—left many people feeling quite the opposite: confused, afraid and in some cases downright angry. "We're drinking all the coffee we can," Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said with a large dose of black humor. "How alert can we get?"

Barely two weeks after Washington sounded a similarly opaque alarm based on nonspecific information, no one seemed to have a good answer. Just as we were getting used to what the Bush Administration is calling the "new normalcy," civilians and law enforcement alike braced for what they feared might be another horrifying strike on the home front. Before, they had trained watchful eyes on the weapon of the week, from crop dusters to haz-mat trucks; cops and civilians now had to view anything and everything with suspicion. The new normalcy was being redefined every minute.

That may be fine for lots of people who would rather be treated as adults than as children and be left to make up their own minds about how to react to government warnings. But with no solid information to divulge about the terrorists' possible methods, targets or timing, Washington risked either crying wolf one time too many or sending a nation from low-grade anxiety into full-blown panic. As a retired FBI counterterrorism official put it, "If you start warning about everything you hear, you become part of the terror, as opposed to part of the solution."

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It's no wonder, then, that a number of cops and other public safety officials all over the country are so grumpy. They have been on the highest levels of alert and are being forced to deal with more false alarms than real information; something may be better than nothing, but not by much. Though the faa did impose a limited no-fly zone for private planes around nuclear power plants, the government did not counsel many other specific measures to the 18,000 law-enforcement agencies that received the advisory. "I wish I could say the FBI is doing a better job of communicating with us," says a state law-enforcement chief in the South. "It's frustrating because I can't tell my people what to look out for."

There was no better example of the confounding, Keystone Kops approach to security than California Governor Gray Davis' decision to go public on Thursday with an uncorroborated threat targeted at suspension bridges in eight Western states. "The best preparation is to let terrorists know, ‘We know what you're up to. We're ready,'" Davis said Thursday. But what exactly did he know? In this case, the threat to attack bridges at rush hour between last Friday and this Wednesday, based on a raw, overseas tip to the U.S. Customs Service, wasn't considered credible by the FBI—despite Davis' characterizations to the contrary. Like countless other reports that go out every day over the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (nlets)—the authorities' national Intranet tip sheet—this one was never supposed to be made public.

Davis cited the Golden Gate and Bay bridges in San Francisco, among others, as likely targets, though they were never specified in the various warnings put out by the FBI, Customs Service and Coast Guard. Some counterterrorism officials were flabbergasted by Davis' disclosure, but President Bush refused to criticize his actions, diplomatically stating that "as a former Governor, I didn't particularly care when the Federal Government tried to tell me how to do my business."

Deciding to publicize a threat is only half the battle, of course. Assessing its credibility is the real challenge, and it has never been greater. On any given day, the various human and electronic sources the CIA consults, many of dubious reliability, generate 40 to 100 new threats. These are now compiled in a daily report known as the "threat matrix," which is distributed to top national security and intelligence officials.

Since Sept. 11, for instance, U.S. agencies have picked up different conversations by suspected terrorist associates on imminent nuclear, biological and chemical attacks. The problem is that most threats are bogus, and as a senior U.S. intelligence official admits, "you can get bogged down in the detail." Just two weeks ago, another Administration official tells Time, the threat matrix contained warnings that terrorists might try a major attack, such as a car bomb, against a U.S. military facility in Saudi Arabia or the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. But since then they have received countless reports of new potential threats, a distressing number of them right here at home.

All too often, though, internal intelligence briefings are as unhelpful as the one the public got last week. "When we ask those providing the information for practical guidance, there is none," says an official who has attended some of the homeland-security meetings. "I understand that intelligence can't always be precise, but it is frustrating trying to react to such uncertainty."

Then there is the possibility that Osama bin Laden might deliberately be making noise to throw the feds off the trail—as his al-Qaeda organization may have been doing in the months leading up to Sept. 11, when members were talking about targeting U.S. interests in Europe and the Middle East. And many in the intelligence community are concerned that making such public pronouncements could blow a source's cover.

Last week's advisory stemmed from a flurry of suspicious chattering among al-Qaeda operatives intercepted by the U.S. and its spook friends over the past few days. Some of the noise pointed to a blanket directive issued by bin Laden to kill Americans at will without waiting for approval from the top; the fact that it is now the runup to the holy month of Ramadan only heightened authorities' suspicions.

One suspect tracked by Canadian intelligence made a phone call from Toronto to Afghanistan the weekend before the alert was issued, referring to an upcoming big event. Intelligence that U.S. spy agencies gathered in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf suggested the same. "It was going to be on a big scale," says an intelligence official.

As vague as the findings were, officials felt that taken together, they were too overwhelming to ignore—or for that matter to keep from the public. These latest intercepts, unlike the sources that led to the previous, Oct. 11 alert, suggested that the al-Qaeda operatives didn't think they were being overheard, which made the conversations highly credible. It didn't take long for Bush to give the go-ahead Monday morning. Not surprisingly, not everyone was on board. Some FBI types had reservations about issuing another alert without any details. Other counterterrorism officials, one tells Time, "are scratching their heads over this alert. Nothing is jumping out in the reports as being more of a threat than we've already had."

One of the potential targets the government hinted at last week wasn't based on specific intelligence at all. Sources tell Time that Bush Administration officials are increasingly concerned about nuclear terrorism, primarily because of the perceived vulnerability of the nation's 103 nuclear power plants. With that in mind, on the same day the alert went out from Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission quietly directed plants to bolster their perimeter defenses. Eleven states have already called up the National Guard to help in that effort. The faa also issued an 11.5-mile no-fly zone for small planes (though it is in effect for only about a week), and F-16 fighter pilots are at the ready. While most reactors were built to withstand the impact of a small aircraft, a 1982 study concluded that a commercial airplane flying at high speed could pierce the concrete dome that protects the reactor core.

Even as the debate over disclosure continues within the intelligence community, the Bush Administration feels that it has no choice but to keep the public apprised. What would people say if America were attacked again in a ghastly way and it was revealed that the Administration had had an inkling of it ahead of time? Besides, the Administration figures that any bulletin that goes out to 18,000 law-enforcement agencies over nlets would invariably find its way into the press.

Although there is no solid evidence to support the point, officials also stress that such public advisories could act, and may have already acted, as a deterrent against future attacks. "It's a difficult and fine line we walk," Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge said at a briefing last week. "But I think America understands, and hopefully appreciates, that when there's that kind of information available to us, we just share it, incomplete as it may be."

But whether the feds share anything more than vague, all-point alerts is another story. Ever since the attacks, cops and sheriffs from small towns to big cities have complained about being left out of the loop by the feds on information that could help them capture terrorists or foil their plans. Many state officials don't even have the required security clearances. Last week was no exception. In New York City, Mayor Rudy Giuliani testified before a special congressional subcommittee hearing on homeland security that legislation was needed to require the sharing of crucial information. His sentiment was echoed by Philadelphia police commissioner John Timoney, who says, "It's my sense that these terrorists are obviously going to screw up somewhere along the line, and it's not going to be the feds that grab them—it's going to be local."

And the locals are having a hard enough time keeping up. "An up-to-date haz-mat suit costs upwards of $20,000," says Pat Hays, mayor of North Little Rock, Ark. "I have to decide whether to buy five suits or a hundred bulletproof vests, to decide which is the bigger threat to my public safety team, anthrax spores or two ounces of lead." Within 18 hours of the alert, the Los Angeles police department went back to "modified tactical alert," a fancy label for business as usual, which doesn't require as much overtime.

In Washington concern about bill paying has taken a back seat to inventing a real homeland-defense system. How bad are deficits when the borders are still so porous? President Bush launched a foreign terrorist–tracking force to better coordinate the sharing of information among various agencies, and he ordered the ins to make visa and immigration guidelines more strict. All these actions, Administration officials hope, will help make such alerts unnecessary in the future. In the meantime, Americans are left to decide for themselves just what to do when the government tells them that danger is lurking around the corner.

—Reported by Massimo Calabresi, Elaine Shannon, Douglas Waller and Michael Weisskopf/Washington, Steven Frank/Toronto and Sean Scully/ Los Angeles, with other bureaus