- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

The chairman of the Senate intelligence panel said that reports of a planned cyanide-gas attack on the New York subway system showed the need for continued warrantless surveillance of terrorism suspects.

Officials declined yesterday to comment in detail on the story, which appeared on the Time magazine Web site this weekend. Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN only that “the intelligence committee is briefed on these kinds of threats. I would simply say that we’ve had a briefing.”

But Mr. Roberts said the report showed the need for the administration’s program of warrantless surveillance of electronic communications from terrorism suspects into and out of the United States. The National Security Agency program, revealed by leaks to the New York Times last year, was authorized by President Bush.

“It points up, once again, the value of the terrorist surveillance program, the NSA program that’s been in the news so much,” Mr. Roberts told CNN’s “Late Edition” program. “We are able to detect and deter and stop such attacks.”

In book excerpts published this weekend, author Ron Suskind reported that U.S. intelligence had in 2003 discovered a design for a small and easily constructed makeshift device to produce deadly cyanide gas and separately discovered that there had been a plot to use a series of such devices in a coordinated attack on the New York City subway system.

Mr. Suskind, who estimates that such an attack would have killed as many people as the September 11 suicide hijackings, reported that by the time it was discovered by U.S. intelligence, the plot — hatched by jihadists in Saudi Arabia — had been called off by al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri for unknown reasons.

Mr. Suskind wrote that the United States learned of the plot from a human source, an agent “from within Pakistan who was tied tightly into al Qaeda management.” It is the first time that the existence of U.S. human intelligence sources with direct access to the al Qaeda leadership has been reported.

White House press secretary Tony Snow declined to comment on the report yesterday, telling CBS News only that “in the war on terror, there have been a number of victories. But I don’t want to confirm or deny this particular story.”

But reached yesterday by United Press International, two U.S. officials who requested anonymity to speak about the still-classified episode, confirmed the main elements of the story.

“There was concern about such a threat from such a device,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official.

Another U.S. official confirmed that there had been a plot to use such a weapon in the New York subway.

“There was a real plot to use this,” said the official.

The official also confirmed that the plot had been “switched off” by al-Zawahri.

“We still don’t know why that is,” the official said, adding that analysts had posited two theories.

The first was that al-Zawahri was concerned the plot would not be successful enough to top the September 11 attacks, by killing more people or causing more panic — a goal that is widely thought to be a big strategic factor in al Qaeda’s operational planning. The second was that the plot might be too successful — and bring redoubled efforts to capture the remnants of the al Qaeda leadership hunkered down on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, effectively eliminating their ability to guide the global movement they inspired.

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