- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The threat of a terrorist attack on the United States still exists, but counterterrorism officials say there is a conspicuous lack of intelligence “chatter” being picked up.

It’s a stark contrast to last year’s holiday season, when chatter indicated a plot could be in the works. The nation was under heightened alert, and a number of foreign flights to the United States were canceled because of specific threats.

U.S. and foreign intelligence and law-enforcement services report a continuing stream of vague, lower-level threats from al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups against American interests at home and abroad. But officials say nothing specific and credible has emerged in recent months that would require the government to raise the risk level above yellow, or “elevated,” the midpoint on the five-level threat scale.

“It’s a little bit like a duck on a pond. You’ve got a lot going on under the surface but you don’t have any big waves,” FBI counterterrorism and counterintelligence chief Gary Bald said Thursday.

Just before Christmas last year, the threat level was raised to orange, or “high,” and flights to the United States from Paris, London and elsewhere were canceled over several days. The FBI, Homeland Security Department and other agencies scrambled to check names booked on those flights for possible al Qaeda operatives either trying to get into the United States or to target the flights themselves.

In those cases, U.S. and European officials were acting on intelligence singling out flights of concern. But even then, no arrests were announced and it was not clear if any plots were thwarted.

U.S. officials and experts say the relative calm and lack of an al Qaeda attack on the homeland since September 11 should not be viewed as evidence of decisive victory over terrorists. Al Qaeda is known to patiently plan attacks and could have operatives already in the United States primed for a long-awaited signal.

“When we’re in a state of high alert, that’s when things are not going to happen,” said Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Health and Homeland Security. “It’s when we’re not looking, when we’re overconfident, that something will happen.”

The FBI, CIA and other agencies have carefully analyzed audio and video communications from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for clues about plots or timing. Although bin Laden’s most recent statement focused on attacking foreign targets in Saudi Arabia, American officials aren’t letting down their guard.

“I think it would be incredibly naive for us to think that someone won’t try another attack,” Mr. Bald said.

Looking ahead, officials are planning exceptionally heavy security for the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Bush. Security also will be tight for major college bowl games and the Feb. 6 Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.

There are currently no specific, credible threats of terror plots against any of those events. Despite the post-September 11 advances in intelligence gathering and information sharing, officials acknowledge the silence simply could mean the government isn’t looking in the right places.

“It’s not so much what we know, but what we don’t know,” Mr. Bald said. “The threat could still be there, but it just hasn’t surfaced in intelligence channels.”

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