Barely two weeks after the failed London car bombings--and the abortive attack at the Glasgow Airport in Scotland--U.S. officials are expressing concern about a possible terrorist strike here at home.
In an interview Tuesday with the Chicago Tribune editorial board, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he had a "gut" feeling about a period of increased risk, based on earlier patterns of terrorist activities in Europe, and intelligence reporting that he wouldn't disclose. Chertofff told the Tribune that "summertime seems appealing to them," and noted Al Qaida now enjoys more latitude in planning and training along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. That development is a direct result of last year's Waziristan accords between militants and the Islamabad government, which diminished Pakistan's authority in its western tribal lands, and essentially created new safe havens for the Taliban and Al Qaida.
Mr. Chertoff's choice of words in describing the looming threat--"gut feeling"--struck me as curious. As they gain experience, intelligence analysts develop a "sixth sense" for their target or area of expertise, learning to read between the lines, or fuse (seemingly) unrelated bits of intelligence data, to gain a real sense of what's going on. During my career, my "instincts" proved correct on many occasions, although I learned that you can't build an assessment on "gut feelings" alone.
Ditto for the Secretary of Homeland Security. At that level, you simply don't raise (or lower) terrorist threat levels based on your instincts. In this particular case, "gut feelings" is apparently a euphemism for intelligence information that isn't fully developed--or can't be publicly disclosed at this point (my money's on the former, not the latter).
Within hours of Chertoff's comments, Brian Ross of ABC News reported that the White House has called an "urgent, multi-agency meeting" on Thursday afternoon, to discuss the new threat. Sources tell Mr. Ross that a small Al Qaida cell is believed on its way to the United States, or may have already arrived. The meeting will reportedly focus on what steps can be taken to minimize or counter the threat, and what can be done to improve security for government buildings and personnel.
One element of the ABC report struck us as rather odd. Facing an imminent Al Qaida threat, it is inconceivable that the Bush Administration--or any other administration--would wait two days to discuss it. Moreover, in an era of secure video teleconference (VTC) technology, it isn't necessary to gather everyone in the White House situation room for a meeting. If Mr. Bush wants to discuss the terrorist threat with senior security officials, he can simply sit in his chair at the White House VTC, and communicate with Mr. Chertoff, the CIA Director, Homeland Security Secretary, FBI Director (and others) who have the same capabilities at their headquarters.
In fact, if the "new" Al Qaida threat is as serious as advertised, I'm guessing that several VTCs have already occurred, and more are in the offing. If there is a meeting at the White House tomorrow, it was (likely) scheduled well in advance--and probably for another subject or a more generalized discussion on terrorism issues. Concern about the new terrorist "cell" would clearly force a change in the agenda, and the meeting touted by ABC will likely supplement discussions that have already occurred--and not represent the "first" senior-level meeting on the subject.
Sounds like Mr. Ross's source has been watching too many episodes of 24. And we're guessing that he or she doesn't have access to the White House VTC schedule. A review of that document would likely reveal previous--and substantial--discussions of this latest "threat."