Lisa Myers: We have been told that the CIA analysts believed at the time that they had found a secret hidden message within the Al-Jazeera scroll, the “bar code” specifically.
Tom Ridge, former Secretary of Homeland Security: Correct.
Myers: Were you at all skeptical about that analysis?
Ridge: Well, it was a unique form of potential information and potential intelligence. Incidentally, the form in which it was presented aligned with some very specific information with regard to flights of international aircraft. We were never quite able to determine its credibility at the time. But given the specificity and potential application to air travel, in addition to everything else, it was part of the mix. And — not exclusively on that piece of information. But because it was a significant part of a broader threat reporting, that we certainly did raise the threat level.
Myers: The CIA thought it had found dates and flight numbers hidden in the “bar code” of the Al-Jazeera crawl?
Ridge: Yeah. There was an interpretation based on the information that they had gleaned from their analysis of some broadcast on Al-Jazeera. And as they looked to connect it to the real world they thought that’s where the connection existed. Including that information on air flights.
Myers: Did that strike you as a little bit bizarre?
Ridge: Bizarre, unique, unorthodox, unprecedented. And maybe that’s very much the reason that you’d be worried about it, because you hadn’t seen it before. But again, I think it’s very important to state that this was part of a broader reporting stream. But clearly, the most unique we had seen at that point.
Myers: We understand that the president himself was quite excited about the possibility that you might’ve actually unlocked a key source of al-Qaida communication.
Ridge: Yeah, I'm not going to speak for the president. But I could tell you that given the uniqueness of this potential source — and the source itself, Al-Jazeera— there was a great concern that this was and could in the future be, if we can affirm the credibility, the very, very unorthodox means of communicating threat information or attack information.
Myers: Now, we’re told that top officials at the CIA’s operations command and the counter-terrorism center thought this analysis was absurd.
Ridge: Well, I can’t speak to what they thought. I can only speak to the reaction that I had and some of us had, is that it’s unique. We haven’t been able to confirm it. Coincidentally—it does appear to align itself with commercial aviation. And 9/11 was all about commercial aviation. The [Richard] Reid shoe bomber was about commercial aviation.
So there were some conclusions that we could draw in retrospect, that may have appeared to be inaccurate. But at the time it was not beyond the realm of possibility. Though, that possibility coupled with other pieces of information caused us to raise the threat level, and canceled flights, as you remember.
Myers: But ultimately, the CIA analysis turned out to be wrong?
Ridge: Correct, I mean and I think it’s very appropriate that — we say right now — as I’m talking with you, at the time, there was tremendous amount of effort for weeks and subsequently months to confirm the validity of the reporting, the accuracy of its potential use by al-Qaida as a means of communication.
But at the time since it existed in the context of other information, we had to consider it as serious information with potential application to commercial aviation. 9/11 is still very much on our minds.
Myers: Sure. At what point did you determine that this analysis was simply wrong?
Ridge: We did not make that determination. Again, the traditional intelligence community, they kept working it and working it through multiple sources. And I think internally they drew the conclusion that that bit of information lacked the credibility that we gave it to at the outset.
Myers: Our intelligence sources tell us that this CIA analysis of the allegedly hidden message was really the primary factor in triggering, raising the alert level.
Ridge: Well, it was very significant, in fact. I don't think there’s any question about it. But I don’t want to trivialize the other bits of pieces of information, and remember, simultaneous. You had attacks in the Arabian peninsula. You’ve got other sources of information threatening, in a generic way, attacks.
Myers: But by raising the alert level you frightened a lot of people.
Ridge: We informed a lot of people and we acted accordingly based on our best information and best conclusions and the information that we had at the time.
Myers: Looking back, it would appear to have been a mistake?
Ridge: Well, I think 20/20 hindsight is a great luxury that people have a couple of years after the event that you don’t have at the time you’re making the decisions. Consider all the factors, potential connection to commercial aviation. We’ve had a couple of incidents — multiple incidents there, other threat reporting — simultaneous attacks going on in the Arabian peninsula and some other sources that talk about attacks during the holiday season. You can’t take that piece of information — even though we had not determined it’s credibility — out of that broader context.
Myers: Is it fair to call this another intelligence mistake?
Ridge: No, I think it’s not fair to second guess people in hindsight when they had to consider it. We had to consider it. I had to consider it — not independently in and of itself — but because of all the other information reporting around it. I just can’t stress enough that it was part of a broader context of information. And I think that America should know that on a day in and day out basis, the professionals do their very best to determine how accurate, how credible, how reliable this information is.
Myers: You know, some people would say this is a little bit nutty.
Ridge: Well, it’s easy to conclude that after the fact.