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Capitol Still Al Qaeda Target, Official Says

Intelligence indicates that lawmakers are at risk as well as financial institutions named last week, according to a White House advisor.

August 09, 2004|Lisa Getter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Intelligence gathered overseas indicates that Al Qaeda still has its sights on the U.S. Capitol, in addition to the five financial institutions in Washington, New York and New Jersey revealed last week, a White House official said Sunday.

The targeting of the Capitol and members of Congress -- which had been known previously -- came up again "as part of this continuing threat stream" that led officials on Aug. 1 to raise the terror alert, White House domestic security advisor Frances Townsend said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

"There were other targets that we were aware of," she said, adding that intelligence suggests Al Qaeda operatives "practiced in the training camps for assassinations and kidnappings."

Townsend did not reveal what information investigators had seen about a potential attack against members of Congress. Detailed surveillance reports, written in 2001 on the New York Stock Exchange, Citigroup Inc., Prudential Financial Inc., the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were found during a raid in Pakistan last month and were forwarded to U.S. intelligence. Some of the files had been updated this year.

Townsend, who assumed her post in May after serving as a White House terrorism advisor, Coast Guard intelligence officer and federal prosecutor, said investigators also found less detailed reports on additional terrorist targets, though she did not identify them.

She said the intelligence information gathered by investigators is much better than the chatter picked up the summer before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"I think it's much more definitive, clearer and much more detailed. I think it feels sort of more serious, more urgent than it did even then," she said.

Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CBS that he had been informed of the threats involving the Capitol and Congress but could not, for security reasons, discuss them.

Biden said he took the information seriously but was "not impressed by some of the sources," saying they had provided incorrect information in the past. He said there was reason for concern, but not "to be alarmed."

"I don't want the American people -- or, specifically, my wife -- listening to this, thinking that there's hard data that is incontrovertible from hard sources that has targeted individual officeholders or targeted specific places in Washington, D.C.," he said. "But there is a lot of talk about -- there's a whole lot of traffic out there."

Several other members of Congress who appeared on television shows Sunday said they were not going to change their activities based on the reported threats. Capitol police have added extra security around the building and closed streets around it since the terror alert was raised.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on CNN's "Late Edition" that he had not been briefed about any new threats in Washington but said all members of Congress occasionally receive threats.

"We have to go about our lives," he said. "And once in a while, do you get a butterfly in your stomach here and there? ... Yes, but you just go forward."

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who also appeared on CNN, said he thinks everyone knows the Capitol is a potential target. "If a bullet is going to hit you, it's going to hit you.... You just keep going forward with your mission and principles and advocacy," he said.

Townsend, also appearing on "Fox News Sunday," said she thought Al Qaeda had intended to launch an attack against the U.S. before the November presidential election but felt that investigators had gotten "in front of them" in recent weeks. "And every time we get in front of them, we get additional time to try and disrupt them and deter an attack," she said.

Still, she said, there is reason to worry. "They want something -- and we've seen it in the intelligence -- they want something bigger than 9/11," she said. "They want a catastrophic attack. That takes more planning, more precision, more explosives, more time to put together."

The Aug. 16 issue of Time magazine reveals some details of the surveillance. The report on the Prudential Financial headquarters in New Jersey suggests that a limousine -- which, unlike a van or a truck, can approach that building without raising questions -- could be used as a bomb, the magazine said.

According to Time, the surveillance reports note that the Citigroup building, "like the World Trade Center, is supported on steel load-bearing walls, and on a steel frame" and that the windows behind the six columns on the facade of the New York Stock Exchange make the building appear "a little fragile."

The level of specifics, Townsend told Fox News, "was incredibly detailed, incredibly chilling."

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