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The National Review
Noise Pollution
by Eli J. Lake

Post date: 10.30.02
Issue date: 11.04.02

In the weeks leading up to the October 12 bombing in Bali, warnings of 
pending terror flooded U.S. intelligence channels. Analysts from the 
National Security Agency (NSA), the CIA, and the FBI combed through threats 
suggesting that car-bomb attacks, hijackings, and kidnappings were planned 
against Americans on three continents. The volume of electronic and 
telephonic communications--what intelligence professionals call 
"chatter"--between assumed Al Qaeda operatives spiked in late September. 
Intelligence analysts suspected that audiotapes from Osama bin Laden and 
his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released earlier in September contained 
coded messages to Al Qaeda-linked terrorists to launch new strikes. By 
mid-October, U.S. intelligence was nearly certain, as CIA Director George 
Tenet told a joint hearing of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees 
on October 17, "that Al Qaeda is in an execution phase."

But U.S. intelligence didn't know specifically what Al Qaeda would do. So 
the administration did what it always does when it is faced with a deluge 
of vague threats: It scared the hell out of everyone. On October 10 the 
State Department issued a "Worldwide Caution," recommending that Americans 
abroad avoid "facilities where Americans are generally known to congregate 
or visit, such as clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools or outdoor 
recreation events." The warning extends through April 8, 2003. In other 
words, it suggests that for six months Americans overseas should avoid 
going to school, church, or out to eat.

A more useful warning might have recommended that Americans not travel to 
Indonesia, something the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs 
considered in the week before the Bali incident. Indeed, new information 
stemming from an investigation into a grenade attack in central Jakarta on 
September 23 suggested that a larger attack might be in the works, though 
it was not specific to Bali. But no new Indonesia-specific travel warning 
was issued. This was due, at least in part, to the fact that the 
intelligence community had received credible threats to American targets in 
Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia as well. "Considering 
the information we had regarding the general worldwide situation, we issued 
a Worldwide Caution," Kelly Shannon, a spokeswoman for the State 
Department's Consular Affairs bureau, told The New Republic.

In other words, one of the major problems confronting U.S. intelligence a 
year into the war on terrorism is that it has too much information--and 
most of it bad. Worse, many in the U.S. intelligence community believe this 
is no accident. "Do the terrorists use disinformation? Absolutely," 
Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Porter 
Goss said during a break at last week's joint intelligence hearings about 
September 11, 2001. One counterterrorism official told TNR last week, "few 
threats provide any specific information, and some threats are intended to 
mislead." At a September 19 hearing of the joint House-Senate Intelligence 
Committee's investigation into September 11, 2001, Deputy Defense Secretary 
Paul Wolfowitz put it this way, "[W]e should not underestimate the skill of 
our enemies or their determination to conceal their activities to deceive 
us. They understand how we collect intelligence, how we are organized, and 
how we analyze information."

Indeed they do. Since September 11, 2001, evidence has mounted that Al 
Qaeda has a keen understanding of the U.S. intelligence-collection system. 
Among the numerous written materials confiscated from Al Qaeda lairs in 
Afghanistan are handbooks on how to evade and deceive U.S. 
signal-interception systems, including detailed instructions on when 
various kinds of satellites orbit over specific land areas. Last December 
the CIA believed that an intercept of bin Laden's voice on the radio in the 
caves of Tora Bora had pinpointed his location. According to U.S. 
intelligence officials, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)--based on an 
analysis of NSA data--now believes this was deliberate deception. 
Similarly, in April, one of bin Laden's chief operations officers, Zayn 
al-Abidin Mohammed Husayn, commonly known as Abu Zubaydah, told American 
military interrogators that Al Qaeda would target U.S. banks in the 
Northeast. The FBI warned local police stations and financial institutions 
in twelve states plus Washington, D.C. In hindsight, one former FBI 
official told tnr last week, the bank warning was "bullshit," and, "We were 
pretty sure it was wrong at the time." Another national security consultant 
to the government familiar with the Zubaydah interrogations said, "Suffice 
it to say, some of the stuff that has come out of the terrorist camps, part 
of the interrogation take, is made up. ... These guys were having fun with us."

round zero for the American side of the information war is an interagency 
panel that has been meeting in Washington--usually twice daily--by 
videoconference since the September 11 attacks, and less frequently before 
then. The panel, known within the government as the Counterterrorism 
Sub-Group (CSG), includes senior officials from the CIA, the DIA, the FBI, 
the NSA, the Office of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, the 
National Security Council, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Often 
representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Immigration and 
Naturalization Service, and other branches of the government sit in as 
well. The panel serves as a clearinghouse for threat analysis based on raw 
data that pours into the system; it also advises various agencies on 
whether and how to make threats known to the public. The panel might 
recommend, for instance, sending notices to local law enforcement 
officials, issuing travel advisories for particular countries, and changing 
the color of the current terror warning system. While authority to issue 
warnings rests with the agencies, the panel has considerable influence.

In the spring and summer of 2001 the CSG was flooded with terror warnings. 
Cables reporting potential mortar attacks, car bombs, and kidnappings 
streamed into the State Department's operation center and CIA headquarters 
from throughout the Islamic world. The NSA also intercepted 33 
communications suggesting pending strikes on American targets in the months 
prior to September 11. "Throughout the summer of 2001 we had more than 
thirty warnings that something was imminent," NSA Director Michael Hayden 
told Congress last week. "We dutifully reported these, yet none of these 
subsequently correlated with terrorist attacks." As a result of the 
threats, U.S. Embassies in the Middle East were placed on highest 
alert--requiring, among other things, embassy staff to keep only as much 
classified material in their offices as they could burn within two hours.

During those months the CSG issued a confusing series of warnings. At first 
the group predicted that an attack would occur on or around May 29, 2001, 
in retaliation for the conviction in U.S. Federal Court of the planners of 
the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. This 
prompted the State Department to issue a Worldwide Caution and prompted 
embassies to increase security. Nothing happened, but the threats 
continued. So the CSG offered a new theory: An attack would come in 
response to the June 21, 2001, U.S. grand jury indictment of 14 men 
connected to the bombing of the Khobar Towers, the American military 
housing facility in Saudi Arabia blown up on June 25, 1996. This prompted 
the Pentagon on June 22, 2001, to place U.S. forces on heightened alert, to 
cancel a joint training exercise with the U.S. Marines in Jordan, and to 
put the entire fifth fleet of the U.S. Navy--stationed in Bahrain--to sea 
to avoid a repeat of the attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, the year 
before. The Sunday prior, an FBI team in Yemen investigating the USS Cole 
attack had evacuated the country because of information that they were an 
imminent target. Still, nothing happened. Finally, CSG put out word that 
the big attack would likely come on July 4, Independence Day, and the 
intelligence community corroborated in June with an alert predicting a 
"spectacular attack" in the Arabian Peninsula, Israel, or Italy in the near 
future. All told, the State Department issued four Worldwide Cautions 
between May 11 and September 7, 2001.

According to sources familiar with the minutes of the CSG meetings that 
summer, after July 4 many on the committee openly raised the possibility 
that the threats from Al Qaeda might be strategic disinformation. Though 
Tenet told the Joint House and Senate Select Intelligence Committee on 
October 17, 2001, that "[w]e considered whether Al Qaeda ... [was] trying 
to create panic through disinformation. Yet we concluded that the plots 
were real," others were doubtful. David Carpenter, the State Department's 
assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security at the time, told TNR 
that in the summer of 2001 he thought the prospect of disinformation was 
possible, even probable. "Even though there was a tremendous amount of 
information being received, we still remained skeptical about the great 
majority of [it]," he said. A kind of threat-fatigue set in. Mel Goodman, a 
former CIA analyst who teaches national security at the National War 
College, said, "When it did not happen after July Fourth, there was some 
complacency. At DIA and CIA the people ringing the most bells were steadily 
discredited and marginalized." Cofer Black, at the time the CIA's chief of 
counterterrorism and a member of the CSG, told the Senate Select 
Intelligence Committee on September 26, "By late summer [2001] I was 
growing more concerned about a potential attack on the United States. 
However, I knew that we needed very specific information about an attack if 
anyone was going to pay attention to us and facilitate action."

Indeed, there's some evidence that bin Laden's network was testing how the 
United States would react to certain kinds of threats prior to September 
11, 2001. "Certainly they are aware we have a massive intercept 
capability," says Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at the National 
Security Archive and the author of The U.S. Intelligence Community. "They 
will want to determine if they are being listened to and how fast we would 
respond to a threat." To track U.S. reaction to disinformation, bin Laden's 
men would need only an Internet connection and the State Department's Web 
address. There they would have seen, for instance, on June 22, 2001, the 
State Department's warning that Al Qaeda was targeting Americans abroad. 
Had they introduced the threats themselves, they would know that the line 
of communication they used was being tapped.

Adding credence to the disinformation theory is the fact that almost none 
of the pre-September 11 information was what the professionals call 
"tactical intelligence," laying out the specific time, location, and method 
of a terror strike. The CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center, for example, 
received word in June that bin Laden associates had been preparing for 
martyrdom operations but heard of no precise plan. If Al Qaeda believed it 
was communicating through secure lines, U.S. intelligence would expect the 
information to be--at least more frequently--specific.

ll this vague intelligence prompts the kind of fuzzy anxiety that leads 
embassies to heighten their security posture, the State Department to issue 
public warnings to citizens abroad, and the Office of Homeland Security to 
change color warnings. And this can actually make preventing terrorist 
attacks harder. Rear Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, the DIA's acting director, 
told Congress on October 17, "[W]e can take little comfort in strategic 
warning where the threat of terrorism is concerned. The nature of the 
threat demands warning with tactical perspective, timeliness, and 
specificity. A natural tendency to 'over-warn' must be recognized and 

By all accounts, though, this tendency is nearly irresistible. The vague 
warning systems provide the intelligence agencies political cover from 
Congress and the administration if a terrorist attack does happen. Says 
Richard Perle, the chairman of the Defense Policy Board, "If you are an 
intelligence officer, and you have to make a quick assessment, you ask 
yourself, 'What are the consequences if I judge this to be a false alarm, 
and it turns out to not be a false alarm? Then I am responsible. If I take 
the alarm to be genuine and it turns out the event did not materialize, 
there is much less damage compared to the damage of getting it wrong the 
other way.'" Indeed, since the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103--when some 
publications ran stories claiming that American diplomats had been warned 
that an attack was imminent--State Department policy has been that no 
threat warnings shared widely within the government should be kept from the 
public. Rusty Capps, the president of the Centre for Counterintelligence 
and Security Studies, a Washington-area training center for U.S. 
intelligence officers, believes the warning system only exists "to allow 
bureaucrats to feel they have done something and have covered themselves."

To get the kind of tactical warnings they need to foil terrorist plots, 
U.S. analysts need more and better human intelligence--the kind of 
information that comes from paid informants inside Al Qaeda's inner circle. 
On some level, the intelligence community seems to know this. On October 17 
Tenet told Congress that in 1999 his agency had launched something he 
called "the Plan" to, among other things, infiltrate Al Qaeda. Since that 
operation began, he said, the number of human-intelligence reports has 
increased significantly. In addition, since September 11, 2001, the CIA has 
successfully squeezed foreign spy services--such as Sudan and Pakistan--for 
vital information on Al Qaeda. Even the interrogations of Al Qaeda 
prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have provided important context for the roughly 
two million communications the NSA monitors on average every hour. The CIA 
and NSA are developing computer models to help sort through these 
intercepts to determine the reliability of the source and to separate them 
from "background noise" like anti-American statements made by non-terrorists.

While these initiatives may bear fruit down the road, the intelligence 
bureaucracy has a more urgent task now: to meaningfully warn Americans 
about terrorism given the abundance of phony threats it currently collects. 
That means scrapping the Office of Homeland Security's five-color 
threat-alert system, which is used inconsistently and mainly serves to 
terrify Americans. It means narrowing Worldwide Cautions to specific 
regions. It means, whenever possible, conveying the reliability of the 
source of the threat information. Americans need to know when they are 
under threat of attack. But they do not need to be constantly afraid. If 
the two are confused, then the public will soon learn the lesson that 
intelligence officials have learned the hard way: Too much information can 
often be as dangerous as too little.

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