From Capitol Hill Blue
Alert elevation based on a lie
By DOUG THOMPSON
Feb 14, 2003, 09:16
After a week of warning Americans to get ready for an imminent terrorist attack, a chagrined Bush administration now admits a key source of information for that attack was fabricated by a captured al Qaida operative.
"We've wondering just how much egg we have on our face," says one unhappy White House source. "Right now, the worst thing that could occur for the administration's credibility is that nothing happens this weekend. I know that sounds terrible but we've got a lot riding on this."
The administration elevated the nation's threat level to orange last week, the second-highest rating. At the time, Capitol Hill Blue reported that some intelligence professionals felt the elevation was not justified because intelligence reports were contradictory.
A key part of the intelligence was information obtained from a captured al Qaida operative who told a detailed story about his organization's development of a "dirty bomb" that could be masked from detection by airport detectors and other security precautions.
The bombs, the operative said, would be set off this weekend at specific government and private targets.
CIA officials urged delaying elevating the threat level until the story could be checked through other sources but the administration decided to go ahead and alert the public.
Only after the threat was elevated did the FBI administer a lie detector test to the operative and the test showed he was lying repeatedly about the dirty bombs and threats.
"He did not pass," said Vince Callistrano, former terrorism chief for the CIA.
Callistrano says the information from the al Qaida operative was a "key part" of the puzzle the Bush administration put together to justify the increased alert.
"This piece of that puzzle turns out to be fabricated and therefore the reason for a lot of the alarm, particularly in Washington this week, has been dissipated after they found out that this information was not true," he added.
Bush administration officials say they still plan to keep the alert level raised through the weekend and claim other intelligence information confirmed the threat was real.
But top intelligence officials at both the FBI and CIA are already pointing fingers at each other -- each claiming the other jumped the gun, but former FBI agent and terrorism expert Neal Zachmann says the real blame rests with increasing paranoia over getting caught flat footed when another attack comes.
"There is little doubt that al Qaida will strike again," Zachmann says. "But the fact is, nobody really knows when or how. The administration really stuck its neck out with this latest threat level escalation and all the visible signs of preparation."
Portable antiaircraft misslbe launching platforms now greet visitors who drive across bridges into Washington. Armed troops patrol Union Station and Capitol Hill police carry automatic weapons while on patrol.
"The point is we're ready now for an attack that may not come for days, weeks, months or even years," Zachmann says. "Are we going to maintain this state of readiness for the next 10 years? Will the public accept it?"
Earlier this week, a jittery public reacting to warnings from the White House emptied grocery stories of bottled water and bought up every roll of duct tape they could find.
By Thursday, however, retailers said the buying frenzy had eased.
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