WASHINGTON - In April, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that al-Qaida terrorists might strike during this week's presidential inauguration festivities in Washington. The warning was part of a drumbeat sounded by U.S. officials throughout 2004 that terrorists were seeking to launch attacks both during and after the election season.
Nine months later, the threat level has been lowered, and Ridge, at a news conference last week, said there is no evidence of a plot to disrupt President Bush's inauguration. Previous warnings, Ridge explained, stemmed from threat reports tied to the elections - not to the inauguration more than two months later.
"There is nothing that we've seen, not just today but over the period of the preceding several weeks, that gives us any reason to even consider, at this point, raising the threat level," Ridge said. "Normally, it's an aggregation of information we receive that we conclude is credible over a period of time. But there's absolutely nothing out there that would suggest we should even think about it."
The shift in rhetoric about the dangers posed by terrorists during the inauguration marks the latest retreat from last year's series of terrorism warnings, which, in retrospect, were based largely on faulty intelligence, dated information or - as with the inauguration - an educated guess.
The change in posture also illustrates the extent to which sketchy scraps of wiretap information, interrogation reports and other intelligence, known colloquially as "chatter," form the basis for much of the government's analysis of the terrorism threat. It underscores a simmering political debate over whether last year's warnings were influenced by a presidential campaign in which national security figured prominently.
A confidential seven-page threat assessment issued last week by the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice said, "There is no credible information indicating that domestic or international terrorist groups are targeting the inauguration." But the assessment added that al-Qaida could make "a strategic decision to show that it has the ability to disrupt the American democratic process," according to a copy.
Ridge and other officials say they have little choice but to err on the side of caution by effectively shutting down a broad swath of Washington Thursday. An estimated 100 square blocks of downtown will be off-limits to the public during inaugural festivities, and about 7,000 troops will be deployed.
"It stands to reason if you're involved in law enforcement or security, that if you have one big event, at one spot, one platform where leaders from around the world are gathered at the same moment, it becomes an obvious target," said William Pickle, a former Secret Service official who is now Senate sergeant-at-arms. "Is it costly? Can it be overkill? Yes, but just imagine the ramifications and repercussions if something were to happen. ... Law enforcement and security will always err on the side of safety, err on the side of doing something."
The al-Qaida terrorist network, which carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has rarely, if ever, timed its attacks to Western calendars, experts say. In addition, the invasion of Afghanistan and other military operations have crippled its ability to mount operations within the United States, while war-ravaged Iraq has emerged as both a haven and a magnet for would-be jihadists.
But U.S. officials say that stringent security measures at the inauguration are necessary in light of repeated statements from Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders about their desire to attack U.S. political symbols and assassinate government officials.
"After the Madrid attacks, there was a lot of buzz among jihadists that striking in the U.S. would be a logical next step," said Rand Corp. terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, referring to the pre-election bombings of commuter trains in the Spanish capital in March. "You have information that seems to be compelling but not quite specific, so you prudently expand it a bit to include the inauguration. ... It's easier to protect special events than to maintain one's vigilance on just, say, January 31st, which is an ordinary day in an ordinary week."
Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, said that jihadist groups remain a strategic threat to the United States in general and to Bush in particular. "Although suicide bombings are al-Qaida's hallmark, al-Qaida trained its members in assassination," Gunaratna said.
But some government officials and outside experts contend that the revelations about the debatable evidence used to justify last year's warnings undermine the government's credibility. During the presidential campaign, a handful of Democrats, including former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, raised questions about possible political motivations behind the recurring terror alerts and statements.
"There is certainly the perception that the warning system has been too subjective and too subject to potential political influence," said Juliette Kayyem, head of the national security program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and a Justice Department official in the Clinton administration. "It makes you wonder why they said it in the first place. ... We were in the middle of a campaign in which emphasizing the risk of an attack was a major part of the Republican agenda, and everybody knew that."