Warnings from U.S. officials on the threat of possible terrorist strikes against Americans overseas -- and the massive closure of embassies in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia on Sunday -- may have divulged too much information, including details about the intercepted chatter and source of the information.
Some intelligence officials say the disclosures may work against obtaining new information and even pose a deadly threat from militants who might kill anyone suspected of working with Western intelligence, The Washington Times
“There simply are not that many who would know about the attacks,” the Times quoted one former high-ranking U.S. intelligence officer saying, "so it won’t be hard for al-Qaida leaders to pin-point the sources of information. Once that happens, they certainly won’t be working with us anymore.”
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The State Department Friday issued a worldwide travel alert for Americans, citing an unspecified al-Qaida threat; the bulletin said that the highest threat levels are the Middle East and North Africa, “and possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arab Peninsula.”
Top U.S. officials are reviewing the threat of a terrorist attack that has led to the weekend closure of 21 U.S. embassies and consulates in the Muslim world and a global travel warning to Americans.
The White House says that President Barack Obama has been briefed on the threat and preparedness measures
Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, led the meeting and then helped brief the president.
Among those at the meeting Saturday afternoon were the secretaries of state, defense and homeland security and the directors of the FBI and CIA.
In an interview with ABC News, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, says officials have determined there is "a significant threat stream" and that the intent is to attack U.S. and Western interests.
The U.S. is closing 21 embassies in 17 countries in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia on Sunday as a result of the alert.
Details about the warnings were reported Saturday, when unnamed U.S. officials told medial outlets Yemeni intelligence agencies alerted Washington to the threat during the visit by the Yemeni president to Washington. The officials also divulged that chatter among operatives from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula had been taking place over the last several weeks, and increased over the last few days, lending further credence to the Yemeni warning.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based group whose attempted attacks included the Christmas Day 2009 attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, is among the most prominent of al-Qaida's affiliates.
Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, called the threat intelligence “the most specific I’ve seen” since the attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.
“It is coming out of Yemen, and it is al-Qa-da in the Arabian Peninsula,” King said Friday on CNN. “There is a plot, the attacks are planned, but it’s not certain as to where.”
"The intent is to attack Western, not just U.S. interests," General Dempsey told ABC News.
"There is a significant threat stream and we're reacting to it," he said, adding that the kind of potential attack was "unspecified."
In issuing the terror alert, the U.S. didn't disclose specific risks to embassies and other facilities, but in its statement said: “Current information suggests that al-Qaida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August" and may "involve public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure."
Bloomberg quoted unnamed officials saying information prompting the alert includes communications among known terrorists intercepted by the National Security Agency in recent days.
It’s possible the terrorists’ discussions of planned attacks may be intentionally misleading in an attempt to divert attention and security from the location, timing or nature of an actual plot, Bloomberg quoted one official noting. The official, the news agency said, called the intelligence credible but not ironclad.
Amid worldwide debate over U.S. surveillance techniques, the intercepted messages also could be an effort to test what communications the NSA is monitoring, or whether certain computers, mobile phones or individuals have been compromised, Bloomberg reported.
The State Department pledged to increase security at embassies and consulates after the attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The Central Intelligence Agency said it had warned the State Department repeatedly of terrorist threats in Benghazi before the attack, according to e-mails released later by the White House.
The State Department had issued a similar warning of possible attacks before that.
The latest U.S. warning came days after al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urged his followers in a speech posted on jihadist websites to attack U.S. sites as a response to American drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terrorist groups.
The chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce, said on CNN's "New Day" that he and several other lawmakers met two days ago with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss the threat.
Later on MSNBC, Royce said: "I believe that it is probably now prudent, given the fact that, in this case, we do have this intelligence, to take this step to make certain that we have fully protected our embassy personnel."
So many of the details on what prompted the alert could possibly damage the relationship to the U.S. of other intelligence sources, a current intelligence officer told the Times.
“These guys know their lives are in danger," the officer said. "As soon as the U.S. shows we can’t be trusted, they will go under ground and we won’t hear from them again."
The officer told the Times the terror threat is one of the most difficult targets in intelligence -- and getting sources among terrorists is extremely hard.
“You can’t just walk into an al-Qaida training camp and say, ‘Hi guys, I’m from the CIA and I would really like to hear what you have to tell me'," the officer told the Times. "Usually we have to use multiple layers of sub-sources to get any access at all, and even that is hard because these guys don’t trust anyone. Who do you think knows if they are going to attack an embassy? It’s something they hold very closely. You can’t believe how really hard this is.”
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An intelligence officer assigned to the Middle East was even more grim: “Any statement like this, even though it seems relatively benign, will absolutely have repercussions. We’re going to have to start all over again."
"I can’t even begin to tell you how many attacks we have stopped thanks to intelligence," the officer added. "But we don’t go out and broadcast that to the world. It doesn’t work that way. ... .We are going to have to start all over again. We are operating blind,"
Newsmax wire services contributed to this article
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