August 2, 2004
WASHINGTON - Financial institutions identified as targets of a terrorist plot in three cities opened for business Monday under stepped-up security and defiant words from people who said they won't be cowed by the extraordinary intelligence pointing to a potential attack.
Police sealed off some streets in New York, put international-finance employees in Washington through extra security checks, and added barricades and a heavy armed presence in Newark, N.J., in response to a heightened terrorism alert aimed specifically at titans of the financial sector.
Treasury Secretary John Snow, quick to try to reassure investors and Americans generally, said the nation's financial system operated normally in the first weekday hours of the code-orange alert.
"People around the world rightly have confidence in the U.S. financial markets," Snow said. "While we must always remain vigilant against terror, we will not be intimidated and prevented from enjoying our lives and exercising our freedoms."
Police checked identity cards as employees filed in to the World Bank headquarters, and guards at its sister institution across the street, the International Monetary Fund, swept the underside of cars with detecting devices as they entered the garage.
Authorities were more visible, although not in large numbers, in a capital that has already fortified key buildings against terrorism. "I'm concerned but we have to carry on as normal," said Shirley Davies of Britain, who has worked at the IMF for seven years. The bank and the fund are among largest employers in Washington, with more than 10,000 people in both buildings, two blocks from the White House.
Along with the international institutions, authorities placed the Citigroup Center building in New York, the New York Stock Exchange and Prudential Financial Inc.'s headquarters in Newark, N.J., under heavy scrutiny after unusually detailed information identified those buildings as terrorism targets, and prompted the government to raise its terrorism alert.
"We are a nation in danger," President Bush said as he met with reporters at the White House to embrace the concept of a new national intelligence czar. "We are doing everything in our power to confront the danger." He called the alert a "solemn reminder of the threat we continue to face" and said all institutions of government must be prepared against terrorism well into the future.
New York police closed several streets in midtown Manhattan and banned trucks from bridges and tunnels leading to Wall Street. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. George Pataki rang the opening bell at the stock exchange in a show of confidence in the city's precautions.
"America and New Yorkers are pulling together here, and they're not going to be cowed," Bloomberg said.
In Newark, Prudential employees threaded through police and concrete barriers into their offices. "I'm a little nervous given the 9/11 situation, but I'm confident Prudential's doing everything they can to ensure our safety," said Tracy Swistak, 27, an analyst in the international finance department.
A heavy contingent of authorities checked identification and bags at the 59-story Citigroup Center, midtown Manhattan's third largest building.
"It's definitely a scary building to be working in when we're a big target," said Chip Persons, 35, who works on the 24th floor.
Officials acted on intelligence that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge called alarmingly specific, but he said officials could not tell whether an attack might be imminent and he encouraged people to go about their business.
"We have to go on being America," he said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "We can't button up and be what we're not."
A cache of recently obtained information - including hundreds of photos, drawings and written documents - indicates that al-Qaida operatives have undertaken meticulous preparations to case the five specific buildings.
Ridge on Sunday raised the terror threat level for financial institutions in the three cities to orange, or high alert, the second highest level on the government's five-point spectrum. Elsewhere, he said, the alert would remain at yellow, or elevated.
"Iconic economic targets are at the heart of (the terrorists') interest," Ridge said.
There was no obvious boost in security at the White House, where defenses were stiffened after the Sept. 11 attacks. Pennsylvania Avenue, the street in front of the White House, has been closed for months because of a huge construction project to turn the roadway into a pedestrian boulevard. On the west side of the White House, truck traffic has been barred for some time along 17th Street.
The fresh intelligence did not give crucial details about when, where or how terrorists may strike, Ridge said, but government analysis indicates terrorists may favor car or truck bombs or other means to physically destroy targets.
In Newark, police set up metal fences surrounding the Prudential Plaza building, blocked off two city streets and toted assault rifles.
And in Washington, Mayor Anthony Williams put the entire city on an orange alert, although the Homeland Security Department has not officially raised the threat level outside financial-sector buildings.
Officials have warned that the al-Qaida network, blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, may launch a large-scale assault in hopes of disrupting the Nov. 2 elections and demonstrating that it remains capable of offensive actions despite international efforts to combat terrorism.
An example of that international cooperation, Sunday's warning stems in large part from Pakistan's capture several weeks ago of an al-Qaida operative, a U.S. counterterrorism official said, speaking only anonymously.
The operative was privately identified as Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, also known as Abu Talha, said to be a communications expert.
That detention led to the discovery of the documentary information about the extensive surveillance of the five buildings, the counterterrorism official said. The official said the scouting was going on before and after Sept. 11, 2001, but it's unclear how recently.
That information was also discovered in Pakistan. Ridge would not comment on specific sources of the intelligence, but he credited strong partnerships with allies around the world, specifically citing Pakistan.
Pakistan's information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, told The Associated Press on Monday that Pakistani intelligence agents discovered plans for new attacks on the United States and Britain on a computer seized during the arrest of a high-ranking al-Qaida operative.
He said the plans were in e-mails on the computer of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian arrested July 25 after a gunbattle in the eastern city of Gujrat. But U.S. officials have played down the importance of his information to the threat against the financial sector.
A senior intelligence official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the intelligence gathered from several sources indicated scouting had been done to identify security in and around these buildings; the best places for reconnaissance; how to make contact with employees who work in the buildings; traffic patterns; and locations of hospitals and police departments.
Examples of the detail the official cited: midweek pedestrian traffic counts of 14 people per minute on each side of the street for a total of 28 people. The official said he had not seen such extraordinary detail in his 24 years in intelligence work.