New F.B.I. Alert Warns of Threat Tied to July 4th
WASHINGTON -- Federal authorities have issued a secret alert to state and local law enforcement agencies warning them of the possibility of a terrorist attack in the United States around the Fourth of July holiday, senior government officials said.
The message from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, like others issued in recent weeks, was not made public because intelligence analysts concluded that the threat was too vague to justify a public warning, the officials said.
"The F.B.I. possesses no information indicating a specific and credible terrorist threat related to the July 4 Independence Day time frame," said the message, which was sent on Wednesday. "However, the political and cultural significance of this date warrants increased vigilance."
The intelligence reports related to the Fourth of July have been assembled from multiple sources, among them foreign security services, the electronic monitoring of suspected terrorists and interviews with Al Qaeda operatives arrested overseas in recent days and those in detention at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
"We're very concerned about July 4th," a senior government official said. "The lack of specificity increases the concern and anxiety that is there."
The decision not to issue a public alert was made after a series of meetings among national security and counterterrorism officials over the last several weeks, the officials said.
But they cautioned that the situation was fluid and that new information could result in a public warning at any time.
Over all, the decision against a public alert represents a significant shift in the thinking of senior government officials over the last several months. Some officials said they had become concerned about the process after several public warnings were issued last fall based on hazy intelligence reports that offered no guidance on how anyone could respond.
They said they feared that such alerts might be causing "threat fatigue" among Americans, who have been bombarded by so many unspecific warnings that they no longer arouse much concern.
Under the new approach, the government is withholding public warnings unless it had specific information about a possible attack. Information regarding less exact threats or intelligence that cannot be substantiated is now relayed privately to law enforcement agencies or, in some cases, to industries or local governments in areas affected by the threat.
The officials acknowledged that the new approach to warnings of threats had been all but lost on the public. The reason, they say, is because of the frequent news reports of F.B.I. alerts about a wide array of terrorist threats, which are taken from the reports to state and local officials not meant to be public.
In fact, the government has issued only one public terrorist advisory this year. That alert, on April 19, warned that terrorists were considering attacks against banks in the Northeast, even though bureau officials said they knew of no specific targets.
Senior government officials said this week that they had information suggesting that an attack against banks might be in the planning stages. But other officials disputed that, saying the information was unspecific but had been collected from several sources.
Eighteen other terrorist advisories have been issued to state and local police agencies this year. About six of these were subsequently became public, officials said, including alerts that terrorists might attack shopping malls, the Brooklyn Bridge or the Statue of Liberty, use gasoline tanker trucks to attack synagogues and use small airplanes as suicide weapons or send scuba divers to attack ships.
In each case, the secret bureau warning was publicly disclosed by the news media, sometimes within hours of its release to 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the country. Several government officials said they feared those disclosures had set back counterterrorism efforts because the warnings were misinterpreted as unduly alarming the public.
Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for the Office of Homeland Security, said: "While the government has issued numerous intelligence updates to local law enforcement, there's only been one public alert this year: about banks in the Northeast.
"Because of such extensive media reporting on all the information passed to law enforcement, most people are convinced that we have issued alerts to the general public on everything from scuba schools to apartment complexes, and that perception has become reality. It would be very difficult to try to convince people otherwise. Realizing that is the case, we're now trying to provide some more context to the information being shared."
The bureau has also been working on modernizing its warning system, known as the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, or Nlets. Under this method, the bureau sends alerts by teletype to one agency in each state, rather than by electronic message to 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies. That agency then passes the message along by electronic communications, including e-mail, to local law enforcement agencies.
A government official said such a method offers little or no assurance that the information will be delivered to local authorities promptly.
"It might take an hour to get it out in Nebraska, and three hours in Oklahoma," the official said.
One new system is called Law Enforcement Online, under which warning messages are sent to local police agencies by e-mail.
After Sept. 11, the F.B.I., which remains the clearinghouse for threat intelligence, began receiving enormous amounts of raw information, from historical sources like the security services of overseas allies and later from people captured in Afghanistan.
The bureau director, Robert S. Mueller III, and Attorney General John Ashcroft issued several public warnings in the weeks after the September attacks that officials acknowledged were based on sketchy information. Senior officials said they could not have ignored the information, even if it could not be corroborated and provided only hints of a possible attack.
"This is a new world for us," said a federal official, referring to the difficulty that state and local authorities faced in trying to interpret the early warnings. "We would put something out there and people would say, `Now what exactly are we supposed to do with this?' "
In October, for example, the bureau issued three successive warnings about potential attacks. Since then, bureau officials said they had tried to improve how they managed the huge flow of intelligence, to enhance the quality of analysis and find better ways to distribute relevant information. Officials said they now tried to make certain that threat warnings are issued only when intelligence about them is both credible and specific.
"We want to find out whether these are dots to be connected, or just blurry marks," the official said.
Despite those concerns, the officials said that more public alerts were probable. Intelligence reports indicate that Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups are determined to strike in the United States. Intelligence analysts said that an attack could come at any time.
Government officials have tried to work with local communities when they issue threat assessments directly to local police. For example, the F.B.I. warned local officials in April and again in May that terrorists had discussed renting apartment units and rigging them with explosives. The information was given to the police, and within two days several counterterrorism officials met with the Real Estate Roundtable, a national organization of apartment building owners, to answer questions.