U.S. ramps up security in face of "credible" 9/11 threat
From Barbara Starr, Mike M. Ahlers and Lesa Jansen, CNN
September 9, 2011 10:49 a.m. EDT
Washington (CNN) -- Heightened security was visible in New York City and Washington Friday, as intelligence officials worked to pin down information about a potential al Qaeda threat coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
"We have received credible information very recently about a possible plot directed at the homeland that seems to be focused on New York and Washington, D.C.," a senior administration official told CNN Thursday.
The official said the plot was believed to involve three individuals, including a U.S. citizen. U.S. officials believed the threat was a vehicle laden with explosives, but "the intelligence picture is not completely formed," the official said. "Not enough is known about the potential operatives and their plotting."
The threat is believed to entail a vehicle bomb, but "we cannot rule out other means," a U.S. official said.
Friday morning, police officers were seen stopping and searching box trucks as they approached the George Washington Bridge, which links New Jersey with New York City, as well as by the Queens Midtown Tunnel, the Holland Tunnel and the Verrazano Bridge, linking Staten Island and Brooklyn.
Police also manned checkpoints in midtown and downtown Manhattan where they examined vehicles, particularly vans and trucks, for possible bombs.
"That's something we've always been concerned about, the introduction of a radioactive isotope, a dirty bomb," said NYPD spokesman Paul Browne.
The NYPD is also sweeping parking garages for explosives and using digital license plate readers to check for stolen vehicles, Browne said. While security would normally have been raised for the anniversary of 9/11, he added, the vehicle checkpoints were a response to the threat alert.
A senior U.S. administration official said Friday that it is the "origin" of the intelligence information that is causing particular concern.
The "working assumption" is that if the plot is genuine, then some individuals involved in it have already entered the United States, the official said. But he stressed they cannot confirm that has happened.
The United States also believes the operatives came out of the tribal Pakistan-Afghanistan border region and they are part of al Qaeda "central," he said, but there is also a possibility that Pakistan-based groups like LET or TTP are involved.
A senior law enforcement official involved in briefings about the matter told CNN that his best information is that the three individuals had not yet entered the United States.
A senior White House official told CNN that President Barack Obama had been updated about the potential threat after his speech Thursday night and would be briefed again Friday by White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan.
No changes have been made to the president's schedule for Friday or the weekend, the official said.
Asadullah Khalid, Afghanistan's minister of borders and tribal affairs, said there is no recent intelligence to suggest a possible attack on the United States.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters Thursday night that while additional police will be deployed around the city, "There's no reason for any of the rest of us to change ... our daily routines."
And Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged residents to be cautious, but said "there is no reason to panic."
Frances Fragos Townsend, a CNN contributor on national security issues who served as President George W. Bush's chief anti-terrorism and homeland security adviser, said the credibility of a threat depends on the source of the information, whether human or technical, and how it was acquired. That gives a good idea of how plausible it is, she said.
One federal law enforcement official who spoke to CNN questioned the specificity of the information, saying: "The information itself is not specific enough to allow us to focus in on an individual."
Another senior federal law enforcement official intimately involved in counterterrorism efforts told CNN that authorities "aren't sure if this is or real or just chatter."
The official confirmed the threat was vehicle-related, as did a joint intelligence bulletin issued by the FBI and Homeland Security that CNN obtained from a government official.
The bulletin also confirmed that other methods than a truck- or car-bomb could be used, including attacks with small-arms, homemade explosive devices, and poisons.
Al Qaeda would probably provide its operatives with enough autonomy to select the particular target and method of attack, the bulletin says, and an attack may involve operatives carrying U.S. documentation.
Intelligence officials believe al Qaeda "likely maintained an interest since at least February 2010 in conducting large attacks in the Homeland timed to coincide with symbolic dates, to include the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks," the document says.
The death of Osama bin Laden in a U.S raid in Pakistan in May and the "removal" of several senior al Qaeda figures since then could add to the organization's desire to stage an attack on a symbolic date such as September 11, the bulletin says.
Such an attack would be a means to "reassert the group's relevance" and avenge bin Laden's death, it adds.
The bulletin, which is issued to federal, state and local authorities, guides and cautions law enforcement on responding to potential threats.
In Washington, local officials said the city has a robust plan in place and has been on heightened alert since September 1.
"I want to urge all of our citizens ... to remain calm and let our law enforcement professionals do their job. At the same time, we ask people to remain vigilant," Mayor Vincent Gray said. "If you see something, say something."
Unattended vehicles around key infrastructure will be towed, Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier said.
In addition to the September terrorist attacks, New York was the scene of a botched Times Square car bombing in May 2010 by Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, who was sentenced to life in prison in October.
Federal officials said they were taking the threat seriously, while evidently trying to temper the news by saying such threats are commonplace in connection with key dates.
"It's accurate that there is specific, credible but unconfirmed threat information," said Matthew Chandler, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. "As we always do before important dates like the anniversary of 9/11, we will undoubtedly get more reporting in the coming days. Sometimes this reporting is credible and warrants intense focus, other times it lacks credibility and is highly unlikely to be reflective of real plots under way.
"Regardless, we take all threat reporting seriously, and we have taken, and will continue to take, all steps necessary to mitigate any threats that arise. We continue to ask the American people to remain vigilant as we head into the weekend," Chandler said in a prepared statement.
Rep. Peter King, R-New York, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said very specific details were made known to lawmakers about the threat. "Many agencies are looking at this from every possible angle," he said.
But it is not known yet if the threat is real, he said, adding, "I would tell people now to go about their lives. There's no need to panic."
A senior administration official with firsthand knowledge told CNN Contributor Townsend that although there is "specific, credible but unconfirmed threat information," there are a lot of questions about this information -- "weird things."
A federal law enforcement official told CNN that the threat appears to go beyond intelligence gathered from Osama bin Laden's compound after he was killed by Navy SEALs. That information talked about aspirations to carry out an attack on U.S. interests on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Earlier Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters that intelligence officials had picked up "lots of chatter" on jihadi websites and elsewhere about the impending 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks "and we're taking it all seriously," but nothing yet that warranted issuing a threat advisory.
Nonetheless, the department will be at a heightened level of readiness as the nation commemorates the anniversary, "staffing up" the Federal Air Marshals Service and other agencies, she said.CNN's Allan Chernoff, Thomas Evans, Terry Frieden, Jessica Yellin, John King, Jim Barnett, Pam Benson, Susan Candiotti and Ross Levitt also contributed to this report.http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/09/09/terror ... ?hpt=hp_t1