Learning From Terror Alerts

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Many Americans are starting to shrug off terror alerts from Washington. When Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge called a press conference last Thursday to issue yet another ominous but vague warning terrorist chatter about possible attacks on the political conventions, some Democrats said that Ridge was merely trying to elbow Democratic Presidential contender John Kerry and his new running mate, Senator John Edwards, off the airwaves.

But counter-terrorism pros insist that Ridge has a legitimate purpose for bidding for the nation’s attention. For one thing, FBI officials say, a previous round of warnings, issued May 26, generated a lot of wild goose chases, but also some valuable intelligence, especially from overseas. For another, officials tell TIME, the FBI has raised a specific MO in a classified intelligence bulletin sent to 18,000 local law enforcement agencies last week. The advisory, headlined “Potential Terrorist Threat to U.S. Energy Infrastructure,” says that “recent terrorist attacks and incidents occurring overseas highlight terrorists’ interests in targeting energy-related infrastructures.” The bulletin cites three coordinated suicide boat attacks at the Arabian Gulf oil terminal in Iraq on April 24, a May 1 attack on ADB Lummus Global petroleum facility in Saudi Arabia and a May 29 attack, also in Saudi Arabia, on Arab Petroleum Investments Corp. While there is no specific intelligence of an impending attack in the U.S., the bulletin says officials are tracking several “suspicious incidents” in the country.

Meanwhile officials hope that Ridge’s call for vigilance will generate more tips of the sort that came in last May, after Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller displayed pictures of seven al-Qaeda operatives who are subjects of a worldwide FBI-CIA manhunt. Officials say television viewers abroad phoned in leads on a few of the men that are deemed credible and have resulted in valuable intelligence. That’s crucial because, says one FBI official, “We think al-Qaeda is in the operational phase of an attack and may have already introduced people into the U.S.”