Qaeda Threat Has Increased, Tenet Says
Panel Told Recent Attacks
Evoke Pre-9/11 Dangers
By Dana Priest and Susan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 18, 2002; Page A01
The recent series of
terrorist attacks abroad signals a dramatic
escalation of the threat al Qaeda poses to United
States, a danger level similar to the period just
before the Sept. 11 attacks, CIA Director George
J. Tenet told Congress yesterday.
"The threat environment
we find ourselves in today is as bad as it was
last summer," Tenet told the joint
House-Senate panel examining the performance of
U.S. intelligence agencies before the attacks on
New York and Washington. "They are
reconstituted. They are coming after us. They are
planning in multi-theaters. They are planning to
strike the homeland again."
Tenet said he had met with
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge yesterday and
will meet with him again today, adding that
administration officials have "taken action
in sectors we're most concerned about."
Other intelligence officials
said analysts who have followed the string of
terror attacks the past two weeks in Yemen, Kuwait
and Bali said they are particularly concerned
about strikes on oil shipments from the Middle
East and on targets in the United States described
only as "economic."
The threat information has
often proved real, even when details such as time
or location are not known. Earlier this month a
French oil tanker was attacked off the Yemeni
coast by terrorists believed to be part of al
Qaeda. U.S. officials learned from interviews with
Muhammad Darbi, an al Qaeda member captured in
Yemen in August, that a Yemen cell was planning an
attack on a Western oil tanker, sources said.
Similarly, in late
September, U.S. intelligence officials learned of
a communication from leaders of the South Asian
terrorist group Jamaat Islamiyyah directing
followers to attack Western targets, including
tourist sites such as Bali, government sources
As was the case in the
months before the Sept. 11 attacks, when Tenet
tried urgently to alert administration officials
to an imminent, if unspecified threat, the
director of central intelligence said yesterday
that he did not know the dates, times or places
likely to be struck in the future.
Despite the heightened
concern about the threat, the administration has
so far decided that the information is too
generalized to raise the nation's alert status
from its current yellow or "elevated"
risk level to orange or "high" risk,
officials said last night.
The FBI sent out an alert to
law enforcement agencies eight days ago warning of
a heightened risk of attack after the release of
separate communications, purportedly from al Qaeda
leader Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command,
Ayman Zawahiri. The warning also followed the
shooting of a Marine in Kuwait and the attack on
the oil tanker off Yemen. Since then, U.S.
officials have worked closely with operators of
key facilities, such as nuclear and water
treatment plants, and government officials to
arrive at a proper response.
Tenet's assessment came
during the last public session of the joint panel
convened to investigate the intelligence
community's handling of information before the
Sept. 11 attacks, a 61/2-hour hearing that also
included FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and
Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the National
All three, responding to
what has been a barrage of criticism over missed
clues and poor communication among their agencies,
conceded that mistakes had been made, but praised
their employees as hardworking heroes.
They said they had
instituted new information-sharing and warning
systems, and had, in general, increased the number
of human intelligence sources, linguists and
covert operations to better handle future threats.
Under questioning, all three said no individual at
their agencies had been punished or fired for any
of the missteps surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks.
This did not satisfy several
panel members, who argued forcefully that
individuals in the three agencies should be held
personally responsible for what amounts to a huge
"People have to be held
accountable," said Sen. Carl M. Levin
(D-Mich.). He was particularly concerned that
while the CIA identified two of the hijackers as
suspected terrorists in early 2001, an agency
employee had failed to put the names on a State
Department watch list until late August of that
year. By then, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar,
both of whom would later take part in the Sept. 11
attacks, were already in the country.
Tenet faulted "uneven
standards, poor training and lack of
redundancy" in the watch-listing system at
the time. "The notion that I'm going to take
her out and shoot her is ridiculous," he said
of the CIA employee.
important but we need to be careful. There was no
intent to withhold information . . . if anyone is
going to take responsibility, I take
"Good!" came a
voice from the side of the witness table, where
Sally Regenhard sat with a photo of her son
Christopher, a firefighter who was killed at the
World Trade Center.
Tenet warned the panel that
intelligence agencies will never be infallible and
that the nation must bolster homeland security
precautions. Referring to legislation to establish
a Homeland Security Department, now mired in
Congress, he said: "You better get it done.
Don't wait for us to tell you [al Qaeda] is on top
Tenet also told the panel in
written testimony that the CIA believes Almihdhar
and Alhazmi were actually in the country not for
the Sept. 11 strike but for another al Qaeda
operation. The pair operated on a different
timetable than the other hijackers and received
special training in Afghanistan in 1999 with
operatives who planned and executed the Oct. 12,
2000, attack on the USS Cole, Tenet noted.
"We speculate that this
difference may be explained by the possibility
that the two men originally entered the U.S. to
carry out a different terrorist operation prior to
being folded into the 9/11 plot," Tenet noted
in written testimony submitted to the panel.
CIA officials said after the
hearing that they do not know what other plot the
men might have been trying to complete. In his
written testimony, Tenet said the men may have
been inserted as last-minute recruits in the Sept.
11 plot when two other would-be hijackers were
unable to obtain visas. They are Ramzi Binalshibh,
a Yemeni national who was captured in Pakistan
last month, and Moroccan Zakaria Essabar
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