D.C., N.Y. On Heightened Alert

Washington, D.C., and New York are on heightened alert Friday. That's because of a new terrorism warning that comes just ahead of the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been looking into the details of the new threat — and tells Melissa Block the latest.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

Two days before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, New York City police are searching cars and trucks on the streets. They're searching backpacks and bags in the subways. And there's gridlock around the city's bridges and tunnels. That heightened security because of what federal officials call a credible but unconfirmed report that al-Qaida is trying to launch another attack.

NPR's counter-terrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston joins me now. Dina, what are you hearing?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, what we understand is that there was a credible source out of Pakistan who was talking about a group of al-Qaida operatives who were allegedly plotting some sort of truck bombing in New York or Washington. And that cryptic intelligence report indicated that they wanted to launch this attack around the time of the 9/11 anniversary. That's the information that we have now.

What this means is essentially that the U.S. has this bit of intelligence and it seems credible, but they haven't been able to corroborate it with all the other intelligence that they've gathered. I mean, officials found the specificity of the targets worrying but that's the only thing that's really definite about this tip.

This is the way Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it this morning in an interview with CNN. Let's listen.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON: There is a specific, credible, but unconfirmed threat report. We take it seriously, as we always do.

BLOCK: And, Dina, you are in New York City. Why don't you tell us a bit more about the security measures that you've been seeing today.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You know, I have to say that the streets look more like the response after an attack, not the response to just a credible but unconfirmed threat. I was driving across the Tri-Borough Bridge this morning and there was a line of trucks with their doors and cargo bins open and police were combing through the contents.

Then, along Fifth Avenue, barricades are lining the sidewalks. Times Square has foot traffic but then there's this huge ring of police cars with all their lights blazing. And I actually thought something had already happened when I was on my way to work. So I and ran down to Times Square to see what it was and it was just these security measures.

It looks really serious and scary in a way that seems a bit out of proportion to what we know so far about this intelligence report.

BLOCK: At least what reporters know. Of course, we don't know what else they may know in terms of specificity of time or place.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, exactly. And we're - I mean, we're talking to people who are in the intelligence community who know a lot about this. And what they've said about this particular tip is that they feel it has been blown a bit out of proportion in the media, that this is something that they're following up as they general do follow up these kinds of tips. But all this idea of there being suspects and, you know, possible rental trucks that are out there with bombs in them, we haven't been able to corroborate any of that.

BLOCK: And in terms of the law enforcement response now, how do they respond?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, what law enforcement does is it tries to run this intelligence - this kind of intelligence report to ground. And this happens in these terrorism intelligence cases all the time. The FBI or a some law enforcement agency get this piece of raw intelligence and they usually don't know what it means exactly, so they try to sort of puzzle it out and compare it with other things they've been hearing.

And then, like the NYPD has clearly done in New York, they're forced to respond in some way while they figure out what they have. I mean, a great deal of the urgency here is that we know from documents in the bin Laden compound that he was keen to strike the U.S. around the 9/11 anniversary. We also know that anniversaries are very important to al-Qaida and that the group is seeking revenge for the killing of bin Laden.

So you put that all together with the fact that we're just days before the anniversary and you get the kind of response we've seen over the last day and a half.

BLOCK: And at the same time, the Department of Homeland Security, Dina, has not, yet at least, raised the terror alert level.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, and that's significant. You know, there's nothing wrong with stepping up security to make it harder for terrorists who want to attack. But generally what happens, if you have that security step up is you actually hear something from Homeland Security. And the fact that they haven't raised the terror alert level, and apparently don't intend to, that's significant.

BLOCK: Okay. Thank you, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston in New York.

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