- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2005


The terror attack that Attorney General John Ashcroft warned of last spring never happened, President Bush’s inauguration marking the last of a series of major events that he considered prime targets.

U.S. officials and counterterror experts say it’s not clear whether any plots were thwarted, and they warn that the relative quiet should not be viewed as evidence terrorists have turned their attention elsewhere.

In May, Mr. Ashcroft and other senior administration officials said intelligence channels had picked up persistent indications that the al Qaeda network or its confederates wanted to mount an attack aimed at disrupting the U.S. elections. Mr. Ashcroft described it as “a clear and present danger.”

Then came a succession of high-profile events, starting with the G-8 summit of leading industrialized countries in June at Sea Island, Ga., and continuing through the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions the following two months. The Olympics occurred amid extraordinary security in Greece in August, followed by the hectic final weeks of the U.S. presidential campaign and the Nov. 2 election itself.

The final event was Thursday’s inaugural ceremony, parade and festivities, again under unprecedented security. The worst that happened was a minor scuffle between anti-war protesters and police.

All the while, government officials warned of the possibility of attack. In August, the terror risk threat level was raised for financial institutions in New York, Washington and Newark, N.J., based on information seized in Pakistan that al Qaeda operatives had conducted surveillance on them.

Nothing happened.

So, was the drumbeat of warnings necessary? Or, was it, as some Democrats claimed, a calculated move by the Bush administration to scare Americans into re-electing a president whose campaign centered on keeping the country safe.

“All of the intelligence pointed to al Qaeda’s readiness and fervent intent to hit us and hit us hard,” Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said. “We know al Qaeda wants to hit us now. They’ve been unable to because of the vigilance of the American people and the dedication of federal, state and local law-enforcement officers.”

The heightened threat announcements and heavy security at major events are becoming the norm in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. No government agency or private company wants to be blamed for not doing enough to prevent the next terror attack, which still is almost universally expected.

The new attitude was highlighted this week by the FBI’s decision to publicize nationally the names of 14 persons, most of them Chinese, as part of an investigation into possible terror activities in Boston. FBI officials did this even though they have no corroboration about any such plot and no firm sense of the original informant’s reliability or motives.

Dale Watson, former counterterror chief at the FBI, said the potential magnitude of an al Qaeda attack requires a full-scale response to every terrorism tip, no matter its source or perceived veracity.

“Since 9/11, you can’t afford to say, ‘Well, this is nuts, we’re not going to do anything about it,’” said Mr. Watson, now with the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting company. “If you don’t do everything you can, you’re setting your head on a block to be chopped off if something happens.”

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