Video: High security weekend

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/27/2004 9:34:44 AM ET 2004-05-27T13:34:44

Having warned the public of a gathering threat of another major terrorist attack, law enforcement agencies on Thursday were focusing on providing protection for a number of high-profile events in the coming months, beginning with Saturday’s dedication of a new World War II Memorial in Washington.

A day after Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller warned that “credible intelligence from multiple sources indicates that al-Qaida plans to attempt an attack on the United States in the next few months,” security officials were facing an immediate test in the dedication of the new war memorial.

Officials expect 200,000 people — including President Bush and other dignitaries — to attend Saturday’s ceremony and have imposed strict security measures, including closure of nearby streets, installation of metal detectors to screen ticketholders for some areas of the National Mall and bag checks for anyone with a reserved seat for the event. A heavy police presence also is planned, with law enforcement and security officials from more than 30 different local, state and federal agencies, including police on bikes, horseback and in the air.

The ceremony is just one of a handful of approaching events that U.S. officials say present tempting targets for terrorists. Others include next month’s economic summit of the eight industrial powers, being held at Sea Island, Ga. The Democratic and Republican conventions — to be held in Boston this July and in New York this August, respectively.

Concern about ‘soft targets’
In addition to clamping down on high-profile public gatherings, law enforcement agencies also are concerned that terrorists could target so-called “soft targets” in the United States, such as shopping malls, hotels and transportation hubs.

IMAGE: The FBI disseminated this poster identifying seven people wanted in connection with possible terrorist threats.
Kevin Lamarque  /  Reuters
The FBI disseminated this poster identifying seven people wanted in connection with possible terrorist threats.
In another pre-emption effort, federal and local authorities will conduct interviews nationwide of people who could provide information about terrorist plans or seven suspected al-Qaida members identified Wednesday by Ashcroft as presenting a “clear and present danger.”

Mueller said the interviews will not necessarily target Arab-Americans or Muslims — although the interviews could include many from those ethnic groups — but would be driven by intelligence needs and information collected elsewhere.

Information being sought, he said, could include “persons that may have moved into a community recently, persons who seem to be in a community without any roots, persons that could be either facilitators or those who are willing to undertake an attack.”

Despite the announced threat and immediate security steps, the federal government said that there are no plans to raise the nation’s terrorism threat level.  “We don’t have the specific information that would justify raising it or would cause us to do it,” Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security Department undersecretary for border and transportation security, said Wednesday.

In Wednesday's warning of the potential for a major terrorist attack this summer, Ashcroft said that “disturbing” intelligence, collected for months, augments al-Qaida’s own declaration that its plans for a devastating follow-up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are 90 percent complete. Ashcroft said that could mean terrorists already are in the United States to execute the plan, though he acknowledged there is no new information indicating when, where or how an attack might happen.

New task force created
Ashcroft and Mueller also announced creation of a new FBI task force to focus on the threat and appealed to all Americans to be extra vigilant about their surroundings, their neighbors and any suspicious activity.

Some Democrats charged that the administration was needlessly scaring people, perhaps to divert attention from the continuing problems in Iraq. Ashcroft’s announcement came two days after President Bush began a monthlong initiative to explain administration policy on Iraq and the war on terrorism.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry stopped short of charging the announcement was politically motivated. But he questioned the Bush administration’s commitment to providing the resources necessary to protect the country, citing gaps in chemical and nuclear plant safety and inadequate protection for U.S. ports.

Ashcroft rejected talk of a political motive, saying greater public vigilance could help head off an attack. “My job isn’t to worry about whether someone will be second-guessing,” he said.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan also denied there was a political aspect to the threat report.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said on NBC’s “Today” show that there was some dissent over whether to raise the threat level from yellow, midpoint on the five-color scale, to orange.

“There’s not a consensus within the administration that we need to raise the threat level,” he said Wednesday. But later in the day, he echoed Ashcroft in saying all key officials are in agreement about the terrorist threat.

Pursued by FBI for months
Six of the al-Qaida operatives, including two Canadian citizens, whose photos and backgrounds were highlighted Wednesday, have been the subject of FBI pursuit for months. The seventh, 25-year-old Adam Yahiye Gadahn, is a U.S. citizen who grew up on a California goat farm and converted to Islam as a teenager. He was described by Mueller as having attended al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan and served as an al-Qaida translator.

Video: U.S. suspect sought

Each of the suspects, Ashcroft said, presents “a clear and present danger” to the United States because of their language skills, familiarity with U.S. culture and ability to travel under multiple aliases and use forged documents.

Ashcroft said that al-Qaida has made adjustments to its tactics to escape easy detection, such as having operatives travel with their families to lower their profiles and recruiting people who can pass for having European ethnicity rather than Middle Eastern backgrounds, as all of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers did.

“Al-Qaida is a resilient and adaptable organization, known for altering tactics in the face of new security measures,” Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft acknowledged there is no new intelligence about the suspects indicating they are in the United States or part of a specific al-Qaida plot. He said it was important that the public be given “a reminder” about them.

Democrat claims ‘skepticism’
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that for “several months” the panel has been hearing reports about a new al-Qaida danger. While he agreed that the threat was serious, he questioned why the threat level wasn’t being changed if new warnings were being made public.

“We’ll never know if the administration has new and justifiable information for this new warning,” Durbin said in an interview. “I think there’s a building skepticism about warnings from the Bush administration.”

Ashcroft and Mueller insisted there was reason for concern, and said the summer could offer a number of inviting targets for al-Qaida.

The political repercussions from the March 11 train bombings in Spain, which contributed to defeat of the ruling party in subsequent elections, could embolden al-Qaida to try to influence U.S. elections through attacks here, Ashcroft said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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