DHS Background Briefing On Postponing US Election
Background Briefing by Senior Intelligence Officials
For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
Thursday 08 July 2004
Senior Intelligence Official: If I could say a few words first. First of all, to address the question regarding TTIC Online, TTIC Online is a website, at the Top Secret, and now also at the Secret level. It is an information system to make available to different types of recipients information at different levels of classification. What the Department of Homeland Security is doing, with what you referred to as the JRIES -
As Secretary Ridge mentioned, we know, from a broad base of (inaudible) intelligence that al-Qaeda remains committed to carrying out a full-on attack, series of attacks, in the homeland. And recent and credible information indicates that al-Qaeda is determined to carry out these attacks to disrupt our democratic processes.
Al-Qaeda has not been reluctant to, in fact, articulate that intent and that threat. Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri have issued several public statements last fall, threatening to carry out those attacks. And numerous al-Qaeda spokespersons have, in fact, said that these plans are underway and are near completion.
We are very concerned that al-Qaeda, even though it has been a degraded organization as a result of counterterrorism successes and efforts over the past several years, remains a dangerous organization, because it is flexible and adaptable, as many international terrorist organizations are.
There are strong indications that al-Qaeda will continue to try to revisit past targets, those that they were able to attack, as well as those that they were unable to attack.
In addition, there is intelligence that indicates that they are looking at various transportations systems, as the Secretary alluded to, and Madrid, the attacks against the subway systems there that resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries.
And looking at the current terrorist threat reporting and information that we have, we continue to look at past plots to gain a better understanding of the strategy and tactics that al-Qaeda may, in fact, try to employ here in the states. In particular, looking at some past al-Qaeda plans, as well as their capabilities and their attacks overseas, we're concerned about Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices -- VBIEDs, truck bombs - and similar types of vehicle borne explosives, given al-Qaeda's long history of successful attacks overseas. These types of means of attack can be used to go against different types of infrastructure targets, such as tunnels, bridges, other types of targets that would lend themselves to that type of targeting.
In addition, we know that al-Qaeda has carried out successful attacks overseas in various locations, in Asia and in Europe recently.
Also, al-Qaeda has remained very interested in aviation attacks. We know that it is a consistent focus of their efforts, as we saw in 9/11. But since 9/11, and despite the numerous security enhancements that have been made, al-Qaeda continues to pursue capabilities that can use aircraft, either as a weapon or to target.
What we know about this most recent information that is being directed from the senior-most levels of the al-Qaeda organization, which includes Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri and others, and we know that this leadership continues to operate along the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And we'll take your questions.
Question: Are you saying then, that bin Laden and Zawahiri are now actively directing their followers?
Senior Intelligence Official: When I mentioned the senior al-Qaeda leadership, and there's senior al-Qaeda leadership, which include Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, also includes other senior operatives. So this type of plotting, this type of operational activity, is being done with the direction and authorization of that senior leadership.
Question: This intelligence that you have, are they specifically mentioning their intent to thwart the democratic process, the election? And if so, in what context?
Senior Intelligence Official: Al-Qaeda, for many years, has, in fact, tried to carry out attacks here or to design attacks that would create political, economic and psychological damage on the United States. Our various institutions, including the electoral process, democratic processes here, are part of those institutions that al-Qaeda is determined to try to disrupt.
So what we're doing is we're looking at this intelligence information recently in the context of what is it that is happening, for example, this year; and we know, with the election process here, this is one of the reasons why I think everybody has to be - remain vigilant.
Question: So this is actually carrying on from the Madrid. I mean, again, I just want to kind of follow-on on this question. Is it that you're looking at it and there's a gut reaction, that you're assuming that he must mean the political process, or you see information that's specifically talking about the successes of Madrid and wanting to replicate that here?
Senior Intelligence Official: We are seeing, in a number of areas, to include various websites that are used, as far as extremists organizations are concerned, different types of reporting, that they are focusing on what they perceive to have been successful attacks in Madrid, as far as the impact on the electoral process there and the outcome of that election.
And so the reporting and other things that we're seeing now is with the same type of expectation and anticipation that similar types of attacks could have, as I think the Secretary said, the mistaken belief that it would have an impact here on the electoral process. But the reporting that we are seeing, the information that we have, is tied to the different types of democratic processes here.
Question: Sir, in any of this intelligence, is there specific, credible intelligence about what they want to do, in terms of how they would carry this out, or is this basically intent only?
Senior Intelligence Official: It's an intent and preparation to carry out major attacks that would inflict major casualties, as well as to create economic damage, political damage, psychological damage to the United States. So it's the intent as well as the preparation and plans that are underway to, in fact, effect those attacks.
Question: When you're talking about political conventions, right, you're talking about physical sites that can be defended, protected. But how do you protect polling in thousands of places across the country? I'd like to hear your thoughts on that. And also, where do you think the threat is going to be highest? At the convention stage of our process, or as we get closer to the actual decision by the people?
Senior Intelligence Official: I'll just take the second part, and then I'll turn it over to [senior intelligence official] for the first part. As far as the - where the threat may be highest, al-Qaeda traditionally has tried to target venues, buildings, whatever, based on very meticulous and careful casing and surveillance, and a lot of pre-operational activity. They are a meticulous and patient organization that tries to optimize the chances for success. And therefore, I believe that their target selection here, as well as when they will carry out the attack, will be based on that type of careful preparation, the thoroughness that, in fact, has been a hallmark of al-Qaeda preparations.
So looking out over the next - the rest of the year, and even beyond, I think what we're doing, responsibly, collectively, is to look at the threat information, look at the reporting, look at those types of events, look at those types of venues and targets that might, in fact, lend themselves to that type of -
Question: So are you saying when we get closer to the actual voting? Or at the stage of the nominating conventions? What worries you the most?
Senior Intelligence Official: I think we're here today to say that we are concerned at this point, from this point on, and looking out over the next many months. The al-Qaeda threat is a real one, it's a continuing one, and I think we have to be vigilant from this point forward.
Question: Could you take the other part of my question, please? How do you protect the polling stations?
Senior Intelligence Official: Yes, I understand the question. And I think the answer now has to be that this issue has not escaped us. It's a very complex one, as you noted in your question.
We have begun a thought process and discussions about this issue. We have to form an approach to it that makes sense here in the United States, and that's what we'll be doing over the course of the next days and weeks.
It would be inappropriate for us to discuss the details of our planning or our effort to secure the election, but you can rest assured that we'll certainly do our best to do that.
Question: Would you postpone voting?
Senior Intelligence Official: That's a speculative question that I'm not prepared to answer, frankly. There are all kinds of issues here we have to deal with. It's premature for anyone here at the Department to give information on this topic.
And by the way, when you're talking about securing an event that occurs on one day, very inappropriate for us to talk about the detail of that.
Question: Is this the result of a break in the case or is it a result of ongoing collection of a large gestalt of information that you've pieced together from many sources?
Senior Intelligence Official: It's based on a very strong body of intelligence acquired by intelligence and law enforcement over the last two and a half years, and on top of that strategic intelligence about al-Qaeda's plans and intentions, additional information that has come in, not in terms of, you know, breaks in cases or whatever, but just because of the continued determined efforts as far as intelligence collection, law enforcement activities and others to acquire the information. And as I think the Secretary said, very credible sources of information are providing this.
Question: But is any of this intelligence different than it was last month when we heard this exact same warning? Is anything different in the past several weeks? Is there new intelligence? Is there a new threat? Or is this exactly what we heard last month?
Senior Intelligence Official: I think I was mentioning that there has been a growing body of intelligence over the past several years, and I think over the past several months I would say we continue to gain knowledge and understanding about what al-Qaeda is planning to do. So every day there are nuggets that come in to the broader intelligence community that we take a look at and start trying to connect those pieces. So it's a dynamic process that allows us to have a better understanding of exactly what we are facing as far as the al-Qaeda threat.
Question: You talked about wanting to revisit targets, both successful and unsuccessful. That would be Los Angeles Airport, New York City landmarks, bridges and tunnels. Is that what you're talking about? You're saying New York City remains a prime target?
Senior Intelligence Official: I said that al-Qaeda has this penchant to return to those targets; for example, the World Trade Center, you know, the bombings in the mid-'90s and then coming back to it. I think what we need to do from an intelligence/law enforcement/homeland security perspective is continue to look at all those previous targets. You mentioned, you know, LAX, Los Angeles Airport, New York City, different places there. So we are not taking any of those targets sort of off of our areas of concern. So there is just a broad array of potential targets that al-Qaeda could threaten.
Question: In the aftermath of Madrid there was a statement that al-Qaeda had lost a lot of control and command and that these were al-Qaeda inspired groups and that one of the biggest problems facing the intelligence community was that there was no solid structure of command. And the way you're talking here is I'm wondering if what you're implying is that this new information you have leads you to the conclusion that there is a solid structure of command and that the guys in the Pakistan-Afghan border are back in control again.
Senior Intelligence Official: I don't think I - I certainly didn't mean to imply that solid structure. I don't think I used that term at all. What I said is that there are senior levels of the al-Qaeda leadership that continue to oversee and direct many of the operations as far as pointing at the different types of targets and encouraging this type of activity to take place and directing it and sponsoring it.
But what you're referring to now is that there is an international constellation of different types of Islamic extremist networks. Some of them are very closely tied to what we refer to as the al-Qaeda organization. Others are loosely affiliated with it. So what we need to do from an intelligence perspective is to understand exactly whether cells that exist within Southeast Asia or within Africa or Europe or other places are, in fact, part of this central al-Qaeda organization or are they offshoots of it.
What we see is because of tremendous successes against the terrorist target that the command and control structure of al-Qaeda has broken down, it's very difficult in terms of communication or whatever. So there may be some greater autonomy being given to some of these operatives who are responsible for certain areas and certain sort of theaters or responsibility.
Question: (Inaudible) that there are sleeper cells in the United States, sleeper cells in the United States, that people are scouting locations for, you know, explosions and so forth, or border crossings to effect the same end?
Senior Intelligence Official: I think we have seen from reporting that al-Qaeda, as I mentioned, does this very careful, meticulous planning ahead of time to carry out attacks. A lot of this type of preparation and pre-operational surveillance and casing is carried out by what you may be referring to as sleeper cells: those individuals that may have been deployed to a target area in order to carry out the type of casing and surveillance that's necessary in order to do the facilitation, maybe to identify a logistics network or other types of things.
So I think, again, from an intelligence perspective, what we're looking at is what does al-Qaeda have in place, what are they doing, in order to be able to realize their terrorist objectives.
Question: One question I have deals with Ridge said that in Italy, Jordan and Great Britain that they had not only the people but the means to carry out the attacks. Has some of the intelligence that you've picked up in the last few months suggested that there are, in fact, people already in place in the U.S.?
Senior Intelligence Official: There is intelligence that al-Qaeda has individuals dispersed worldwide, and worldwide would include the United States, that are - they are using in order to facilitate the operational planning necessary to carry out attacks successfully. So one of the things that we have learned, and I think the reference to different types of networks that have been wrapped up that the Secretary's mentioning, plans in the United Kingdom to carry out attacks with VBIEDs as far as individuals, the materials, we know that that was done as a result not just of plans and directions but also those individuals who helped facilitate that type of operation who may be in place for many years and then become facilitators and then may also go into an operational mode. So I think that we have to think about what we see overseas and then apply that to our understanding here in the States.
Question: Can we hear something from the FBI? Can we hear just a comment from the FBI? There's been no voice from the Bureau at all.
Senior Intelligence Official: Yes, I think one thing that's really important is in regards to Homeland Security one of the things that's happening in the federal government is we're all coming together working to address issues that arise in the country, specifically with JTTF, the Joint Terrorism Task Forces. We've got representatives from most, if not all, federal law enforcement agencies, state agencies, local agencies, and we're working together.
I think what's really important and what I see from my position at headquarters is that when we get into these modes of having to operate, a lot of times you see the badges go off as far as the agency or department that the people are working for. I think that's what's really important. And I think what we have now is law enforcement sees a real mission in that we've got to safeguard the country and we're really working together to do it. And I think one of the keys is that it has been alluded to by Secretary Ridge and [senior intelligence official], is that we're working together as far as intelligence. There's a lot of intelligence sharing. There are constant meetings back here in D.C. as well as in cities and states around the country, and we're working together collectively and that's what really important. And we really think that's the way we're going to succeed and we do have a huge mission ahead of us.
Senior Intelligence Official: Thank you very much. Thank you.