FBI's 'spectacular' threat warning raises questions

Saturday, November 16, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The FBI's warning about a "spectacular" terrorist attack could mean something bigger than Bali, where nearly 200 people died, says a former agency analyst. A psychologist who monitors law enforcement says it may be intended as a jarring caution not to be complacent.

Others say it may simply be a nod to critics who thought the FBI was too cagey about earlier threats.

The FBI bulletin warns: "In selecting its next targets, sources suggest al-Qaida may favor spectacular attacks that meet several criteria: high symbolic value, mass casualties, severe damage to the US economy, and maximum psychological trauma."

The sweeping language leaves people wondering exactly what they're supposed to do.

"This is a difficult issue to deal with. What do they want people to accomplish?" asked Robert Litt, a principal associate deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Litt said, the bureau tended to keep secret the information gathered from "chatter" -- a mix of first and secondhand information and gossip unfiltered by analysts -- in order not to compromise sources or create panic. Since then, with intelligence agencies sensitive to complaints that they missed signs of pending attacks, the pendulum may have swung the other way. "They're not going to make that mistake again, not sharing with local law enforcement," Litt said.

Some people have gotten numb to the repeated warnings.

"I guess I'll just be a little more cautious, but I won't really alter my lifestyle," said Valerie Dulk, 36, of Silver Spring, Md. "I don't want to live in fear because of something unpredictable."

In downtown Washington, where people took note of the FBI's caution that national landmarks might be targets, legal secretary Cheryl Kragnes, 47, said it was important to her that the national terror alert had not been raised from code yellow.

"It's very distressing because, to me, it makes it even more obvious how hopeless the war on terrorism really is," she said. "But you just refuse to let things like that stop you from living your life."

Matthew Levitt, a former counterterror analyst with the FBI, said "spectacular" suggested something larger than last month's attack in Bali that killed almost 200 people -- most of them Australian tourists.

"To me, 'spectacular' indicates a very serious attack against a very serious target, near term," said Levitt. "It's more of a when than an if."


  • FBI warning: www.nipc.gov/publications/infobulletins/2002/ib02-010.htm

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