Washington Post - October 23, 2005
List of foiled plots puzzling to some
White House document mixes half-baked plans with serious terrorist threats
By Sara Kehaulani Goo
A White House list of 10 terrorist plots disrupted by the United States has confused counterterrorism experts and officials, who say they cannot distinguish between the importance of some incidents on the list and others that were left off.
Intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the White House overstated the gravity of the plots by saying that they had been foiled, when most were far from ready to be executed. Others noted that the nation's color-coded threat index was not raised from yellow, or "elevated" risk of attack, to orange, or "high" risk, for most of the time covered by the incidents on the list.
The president made it "sound like well-hatched plans," said a former CIA official involved in counterterrorism during that period. "I don't think they fall into that category."
President Bush announced the list of attacks on Oct. 6, describing them as serious al Qaeda terrorist plots disrupted by the United States and its allies since Sept. 11, 2001. The document included never-before-disclosed plans to use hijacked commercial airliners to attack the East and West coasts in 2002 and 2003.
Three of the 10 plots were aimed at U.S. soil, and the government also halted five al Qaeda efforts to case possible targets or infiltrate operatives into the country.
Counterterrorism experts said they could not explain why some of the U.S. government's bigger successes did not make the list, including the thwarted attack by Richard Reid, who tried to set off explosives in his shoes aboard a transatlantic flight in December 2001, and the capture a year later of Ali Saleh Kahlah Marri, a graduate student at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., who officials believe had ties to Sept. 11 terrorists.
"We don't know how they came to the conclusions they came to," said one counterterrorism official, who spoke anonymously for fear of angering the White House. "It's safe to say that most of the [intelligence] community doesn't think it's worth very much."
The White House said the incidents were compiled by the U.S. "intelligence community" and most had already been mentioned in public, either in media accounts or when arrests were made. A spokesman for the National Security Council, which reviewed each of the plots before the list was released, declined to say whether the incidents represent the most serious threats or explain why other incidents that required more disruptive security measures did not make the list….
U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales declined to discuss the White House-produced list in detail or whether the Justice Department was consulted in its formation. "The fact that they're not on that list doesn't mean those other successes weren't important," Gonzales said.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to multiple requests for comment. During most of the domestic plots on the White House list, the threat index remained at yellow. For example, one of the newly disclosed attacks was a disrupted mid-2002 plot to use aircraft hijacked overseas to target the Library Tower in Los Angeles…..
"The problem with these lists is that we don't know the criteria," said Bruce Hoffman, a Rand Corp. terrorism expert. When the incidents do not correspond to elevated threat levels, "it runs the risk of 'Were we just crying wolf then?' This is an impressive compendium of actual attacks, but what about the other ones?"
One well-known series of events not on the list is the terror threat over the New Year's holiday in 2003-2004, when the U.S. government took the unprecedented step of canceling dozens of commercial airline flights from London and Paris over concerns that terrorists were targeting specific flights…..