WASHINGTON — The Bush administration learned from a third person, separately from documents and two prisoners named this week, that al-Qaida was plotting to attack U.S. financial buildings, officials said Wednesday, rejecting criticism that the government’s latest terror warning was overblown.
The White House described the latest information as “another new stream of intelligence” that supported its decision to issue warnings. It arrived days before the public alert, even as officials were reviewing reams of documents and photographs that showed surveillance of five such financial buildings in New York, New Jersey and Washington carried out years ago by al-Qaida.
“Old information isn’t irrelevant information, particularly with this kind of enemy,” Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn.
The information corroborating al-Qaida’s intentions to carry out attacks against U.S. financial buildings came from someone other than two recently captured suspects in Pakistan, a senior Justice Department official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Information from those two suspects — a young militant familiar with computers and a man indicted in the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa in 1998 — had provided the bulk of the intelligence that led to Sunday’s warnings.
‘We have to talk to America’
The corroborating information “is not all old material,” a senior intelligence official told NBC News.
While the intelligence is viewed as credible, it did not specify targets in the United States or say when an attack might be planned, a second official said. But it so closely tracked the other intelligence that U.S. financial buildings had already been under surveillance by al-Qaida that it contributed to the decision to issue the public warnings.
A U.S. official told NBC News that there were signs that the highly detailed data on the computer seized last week had been accessed recently, indicating a continuing potential interest in using it. In addition, the recently interrogated detainees — including Abu Eisa al Hindi, a senior al-Qaida operative recently captured in London — also gave information, not yet verified, that the plan was about to be put into action.
Officials told NBC News on Wednesday that most of the descriptions found on the computer concerned the Prudential Financial building in Newark, N.J. They said federal agents were checking indications that the young militant had contacted people in the United States within the past few months.
Ridge said: “Coupled with general threat reporting, coupled with other pieces of information, then all of the sudden you say to yourself, ‘This is a time when we have to talk to America about the threat.’ And that’s exactly what we did.”
McClellan: Questioning alerts is ‘irresponsible’
The FBI is monitoring al-Qaida operatives and others associated with Islamic terrorist groups inside the United States, although those people have not been directly linked to the threat against financial buildings, the Justice Department official said. Those people include financiers for Ansar al-Islam, a militant group linked to al-Qaida, the official said.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan declined to describe in detail what he called “another new stream of intelligence,” saying it might endanger continuing intelligence operations. He criticized as an “irresponsible suggestion” any criticism that the administration had issued a terrorism warning for political purposes.
“When you connect all these streams of intelligence, it paints an alarming picture,” McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One during a campaign flight to Iowa.
Ridge and other senior administration officials spent a second day Wednesday defending the warnings, which came on the heels of the Democratic National Convention and drew attention from the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
“I categorically state that the none of the terror threats are politically motivated,” Ridge said.
In New York, Treasury Secretary John Snow said suggestions that terrorism alerts were manipulated were “pure, unadulterated nonsense.” Snow toured the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and praised traders for their resilience in the face of such warnings.
NBC’s Pete Williams in Washington and Robert Windrem in New York and The Associated Press contributed to this report.