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Terror ‘trifecta’ is threat-level spur

The confluence of a river of intelligence left no doubt in the minds of security officials who recommended that the nation’s terrorist threat level be raised to a “high risk.” Brock N. Meeks reports.
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When President Bush approved raising the nation’s terrorist threat level last week because of a “high risk” of attacks on Americans here or abroad, he was acting on the advice of his Homeland Security Council, which one intelligence official says detected a “terrorism trifecta” — proximity, pattern and weapons profile — in the mass of evidence it had reviewed.

HOURS BEFORE MEMBERS of the Homeland Security Council held their daily 9:30 morning meeting on Feb. 7, their deputies, holding their own much earlier 7 a.m. call, knew that the torrent of intelligence streaming into various U.S. intelligence agencies had reached a rare consensus.

After filtering, analyzing and sifting through hundreds of thousands of pieces of intelligence from every source imaginable — human, electronic and otherwise — the deputies presented their findings to the Homeland Security Council, which told the president it was time to raise the terrorist threat level to “orange.”

“Think of it as a chess game where only once in awhile you know where your opponent has moved. In this case, we got to see a whole series of moves,” the official said of events leading up to the decision to raise the threat level.

In proposing an increase in the threat level, the Homeland Security Council had no specifics — for example, no single piece of evidence pointed to specific target on a specific date with a specific weapon. But the council did have a sufficient critical mass of information that gave it the confidence to justify the jump in threat levels, intelligence sources said.

According to an administration memo that went out to law enforcement agencies across the nation shortly after the threat level was bumped to orange, intelligence indicated that the likelihood of an attack was tied to the proximity of the end of the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia that ends in mid-February.

The strongest intelligence pointed to the weapons likely to be used in a near-term terrorist attack, including biological and chemical agents and some type of radiological device.

Intelligence analysts also tied a pattern of recent terrorist activity, including the bombing of a nightclub in Bali and a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, to al-Qaida operatives. The memo said al-Qaida may be readying an attack on so-called “soft targets,” which were defined as “lightly secured” areas such as apartment complexes and hotels.

“So when you put it in context, it’s pretty clear that this is a situation where al-Qaida is going to strike the United States and at the interest of free people in other settings,” U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said at a news conference on Feb. 7.


Once the order to raise the terrorist threat level is given, a domino-like series of events plays out on the federal, state and local levels. There are certain actions that must take place when an orange-level alert is issued, among them:

Federal coordination among state and local law enforcement agencies as well as the National Guard.

Extra precautions at public events and consideration of alternative venues or cancellations.

Preparations for government agencies to work at alternative sites or with a dispersed workforce.

Severe restrictions on access to threatened facilities.

But the process for getting information down to the local levels is fractured, said local law enforcement officials. Many state and local officials still don’t know how to respond or what their specific duties are supposed to be.

Some local enforcement officials complain that the top-down information flow is too slow.

“It’s changed somewhat,” said John Timoney, Miami’s police chief. “It’s clearly better than it was a year and a half ago, but sometimes you put on CNBC and find out before you find out, you know, from those who know,” Timoney said. “That part is still troubling, but I must admit it’s getting better and getting better every day.”


Making the decision to raise the threat level isn’t a snap judgment, security officials said. Many factors, including the drag on the economy owing to unexpected costs for overtime and extraordinary security measures, must be considered, officials said.

The nation has been here before. The threat level was raised to orange on the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The Department of Homeland Security wouldn’t discuss the potential for “threat fatigue” among the public if the threat level is repeatedly raised and lowered.

“I’m just not even going to answer that question,” DHS Spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said. “We’re concerned about making sure that we’re analyzing the level of threats and making sure the American public is informed to those threats.”

One intelligence official said, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, “If the American people knew what we knew, they would be sleeping in shifts.”

Brock N. Meeks is chief Washington correspondent for