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Noise Pollution

In the weeks leading up to the October 12 bombing in Bali, warnings of pending terror flooded U.S. intelligence channels. Analysts from the National Security Agency (NSA), the CIA, and the FBI combed through threats suggesting that car-bomb attacks, hijackings, and kidnappings were planned against Americans on three continents. The volume of electronic and telephonic communications--what intelligence professionals call "chatter"--between assumed Al Qaeda operatives spiked in late September. Intelligence analysts suspected that audiotapes from Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released earlier in September contained coded messages to Al Qaeda-linked terrorists to launch new strikes. By mid-October, U.S. intelligence was nearly certain, as CIA Director George Tenet told a joint hearing of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on October 17, "that Al Qaeda is in an execution phase."

But U.S. intelligence didn't know specifically what Al Qaeda would do. So the administration did what it always does when it is faced with a deluge of vague threats: It scared the hell out of everyone. On October 10 the State Department issued a "Worldwide Caution," recommending that Americans abroad avoid "facilities where Americans are generally known to congregate or visit, such as clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools or outdoor recreation events." The warning extends through April 8, 2003. In other words, it suggests that for six months Americans overseas should avoid going to school, church, or out to eat.

A more useful warning might have recommended that Americans not travel to Indonesia, something the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs considered in the week before the Bali incident. Indeed, new information stemming from an investigation into a grenade attack in central Jakarta on September 23 suggested that a larger attack might be in the works, though it was not specific to Bali. But no new Indonesia-specific travel warning was issued. This was due, at least in part, to the fact that the intelligence community had received credible threats to American targets in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia as well. "Considering the information we had regarding the general worldwide situation, we issued a Worldwide Caution," Kelly Shannon, a spokeswoman for the State Department's Consular Affairs bureau, told The New Republic.

In other words, one of the major problems confronting U.S. intelligence a year into the war on terrorism is that it has too much information--and most of it bad. Worse, many in the U.S. intelligence community believe this is no accident. "Do the terrorists use disinformation? Absolutely," Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Porter Goss said during a break at last week's joint intelligence hearings about September 11, 2001. One counterterrorism official told TNR last week, "few threats provide any specific information, and some threats are intended to mislead." At a September 19 hearing of the joint House-Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into September 11, 2001, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz put it this way, "[W]e should not underestimate the skill of our enemies or their determination to conceal their activities to deceive us. They understand how we collect intelligence, how we are organized, and how we analyze information."

Indeed they do. Since September 11, 2001, evidence has mounted that Al Qaeda has a keen understanding of the U.S. intelligence-collection system. Among the numerous written materials confiscated from Al Qaeda lairs in Afghanistan are handbooks on how to evade and deceive U.S. signal-interception systems, including detailed instructions on when various kinds of satellites orbit over specific land areas. Last December the CIA believed that an intercept of bin Laden's voice on the radio in the caves of Tora Bora had pinpointed his location. According to U.S. intelligence officials, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)--based on an analysis of NSA data--now believes this was deliberate deception. Similarly, in April, one of bin Laden's chief operations officers, Zayn al-Abidin Mohammed Husayn, commonly known as Abu Zubaydah, told American military interrogators that Al Qaeda would target U.S. banks in the Northeast. The FBI warned local police stations and financial institutions in twelve states plus Washington, D.C. In hindsight, one former FBI official told TNR last week, the bank warning was "bullshit," and, "We were pretty sure it was wrong at the time." Another national security consultant to the government familiar with the Zubaydah interrogations said, "Suffice it to say, some of the stuff that has come out of the terrorist camps, part of the interrogation take, is made up. ... These guys were having fun with us."

Ground zero for the American side of the information war is an interagency panel that has been meeting in Washington--usually twice daily--by videoconference since the September 11 attacks, and less frequently before then. The panel, known within the government as the Counterterrorism Sub-Group (CSG), includes senior officials from the CIA, the DIA, the FBI, the NSA, the Office of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Often representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and other branches of the government sit in as well. The panel serves as a clearinghouse for threat analysis based on raw data that pours into the system; it also advises various agencies on whether and how to make threats known to the public. The panel might recommend, for instance, sending notices to local law enforcement officials, issuing travel advisories for particular countries, and changing the color of the current terror warning system. While authority to issue warnings rests with the agencies, the panel has considerable influence.

In the spring and summer of 2001 the CSG was flooded with terror warnings. Cables reporting potential mortar attacks, car bombs, and kidnappings streamed into the State Department's operation center and CIA headquarters from throughout the Islamic world. The NSA also intercepted 33 communications suggesting pending strikes on American targets in the months prior to September 11. "Throughout the summer of 2001 we had more than thirty warnings that something was imminent," NSA Director Michael Hayden told Congress last week. "We dutifully reported these, yet none of these subsequently correlated with terrorist attacks." As a result of the threats, U.S. Embassies in the Middle East were placed on highest alert--requiring, among other things, embassy staff to keep only as much classified material in their offices as they could burn within two hours.

During those months the CSG issued a confusing series of warnings. At first the group predicted that an attack would occur on or around May 29, 2001, in retaliation for the conviction in U.S. Federal Court of the planners of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. This prompted the State Department to issue a Worldwide Caution and prompted embassies to increase security. Nothing happened, but the threats continued. So the CSG offered a new theory: An attack would come in response to the June 21, 2001, U.S. grand jury indictment of 14 men connected to the bombing of the Khobar Towers, the American military housing facility in Saudi Arabia blown up on June 25, 1996. This prompted the Pentagon on June 22, 2001, to place U.S. forces on heightened alert, to cancel a joint training exercise with the U.S. Marines in Jordan, and to put the entire fifth fleet of the U.S. Navy--stationed in Bahrain--to sea to avoid a repeat of the attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, the year before. The Sunday prior, an FBI team in Yemen investigating the USS Cole attack had evacuated the country because of information that they were an imminent target. Still, nothing happened. Finally, CSG put out word that the big attack would likely come on July 4, Independence Day, and the intelligence community corroborated in June with an alert predicting a "spectacular attack" in the Arabian Peninsula, Israel, or Italy in the near future. All told, the State Department issued four Worldwide Cautions between May 11 and September 7, 2001.

According to sources familiar with the minutes of the CSG meetings that summer, after July 4 many on the committee openly raised the possibility that the threats from Al Qaeda might be strategic disinformation. Though Tenet told the Joint House and Senate Select Intelligence Committee on October 17, 2001, that "[w]e considered whether Al Qaeda ... [was] trying to create panic through disinformation. Yet we concluded that the plots were real," others were doubtful. David Carpenter, the State Department's assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security at the time, told TNR that in the summer of 2001 he thought the prospect of disinformation was possible, even probable. "Even though there was a tremendous amount of information being received, we still remained skeptical about the great majority of [it]," he said. A kind of threat-fatigue set in. Mel Goodman, a former CIA analyst who teaches national security at the National War College, said, "When it did not happen after July Fourth, there was some complacency. At DIA and CIA the people ringing the most bells were steadily discredited and marginalized." Cofer Black, at the time the CIA's chief of counterterrorism and a member of the CSG, told the Senate Select Intelligence Committee on September 26, "By late summer [2001] I was growing more concerned about a potential attack on the United States. However, I knew that we needed very specific information about an attack if anyone was going to pay attention to us and facilitate action."

Indeed, there's some evidence that bin Laden's network was testing how the United States would react to certain kinds of threats prior to September 11, 2001. "Certainly they are aware we have a massive intercept capability," says Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive and the author of The U.S. Intelligence Community. "They will want to determine if they are being listened to and how fast we would respond to a threat." To track U.S. reaction to disinformation, bin Laden's men would need only an Internet connection and the State Department's Web address. There they would have seen, for instance, on June 22, 2001, the State Department's warning that Al Qaeda was targeting Americans abroad. Had they introduced the threats themselves, they would know that the line of communication they used was being tapped.

Adding credence to the disinformation theory is the fact that almost none of the pre-September 11 information was what the professionals call "tactical intelligence," laying out the specific time, location, and method of a terror strike. The CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center, for example, received word in June that bin Laden associates had been preparing for martyrdom operations but heard of no precise plan. If Al Qaeda believed it was communicating through secure lines, U.S. intelligence would expect the information to be--at least more frequently--specific.

All this vague intelligence prompts the kind of fuzzy anxiety that leads embassies to heighten their security posture, the State Department to issue public warnings to citizens abroad, and the Office of Homeland Security to change color warnings. And this can actually make preventing terrorist attacks harder. Rear Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, the DIA's acting director, told Congress on October 17, "[W]e can take little comfort in strategic warning where the threat of terrorism is concerned. The nature of the threat demands warning with tactical perspective, timeliness, and specificity. A natural tendency to `over-warn' must be recognized and overcome."

By all accounts, though, this tendency is nearly irresistible. The vague warning systems provide the intelligence agencies political cover from Congress and the administration if a terrorist attack does happen. Says Richard Perle, the chairman of the Defense Policy Board, "If you are an intelligence officer, and you have to make a quick assessment, you ask yourself, `What are the consequences if I judge this to be a false alarm, and it turns out to not be a false alarm? Then I am responsible. If I take the alarm to be genuine and it turns out the event did not materialize, there is much less damage compared to the damage of getting it wrong the other way.'" Indeed, since the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103--when some publications ran stories claiming that American diplomats had been warned that an attack was imminent--State Department policy has been that no threat warnings shared widely within the government should be kept from the public. Rusty Capps, the president of the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies, a Washington-area training center for U.S. intelligence officers, believes the warning system only exists "to allow bureaucrats to feel they have done something and have covered themselves."

To get the kind of tactical warnings they need to foil terrorist plots, U.S. analysts need more and better human intelligence--the kind of information that comes from paid informants inside Al Qaeda's inner circle. On some level, the intelligence community seems to know this. On October 17 Tenet told Congress that in 1999 his agency had launched something he called "the Plan" to, among other things, infiltrate Al Qaeda. Since that operation began, he said, the number of human-intelligence reports has increased significantly. In addition, since September 11, 2001, the CIA has successfully squeezed foreign spy services--such as Sudan and Pakistan--for vital information on Al Qaeda. Even the interrogations of Al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have provided important context for the roughly two million communications the NSA monitors on average every hour. The CIA and NSA are developing computer models to help sort through these intercepts to determine the reliability of the source and to separate them from "background noise" like anti-American statements made by non-terrorists.

While these initiatives may bear fruit down the road, the intelligence bureaucracy has a more urgent task now: to meaningfully warn Americans about terrorism given the abundance of phony threats it currently collects. That means scrapping the Office of Homeland Security's five-color threat-alert system, which is used inconsistently and mainly serves to terrify Americans. It means narrowing Worldwide Cautions to specific regions. It means, whenever possible, conveying the reliability of the source of the threat information. Americans need to know when they are under threat of attack. But they do not need to be constantly afraid. If the two are confused, then the public will soon learn the lesson that intelligence officials have learned the hard way: Too much information can often be as dangerous as too little.