(3 of 4)
As vague as the findings were, officials felt that taken together, they were too overwhelming to ignore--or for that matter to keep from the public. These latest intercepts, unlike the sources that led to the previous, Oct. 11 alert, suggested that the al-Qaeda operatives didn't think they were being overheard, which made the conversations highly credible. It didn't take long for Bush to give the go-ahead Monday morning. Not surprisingly, not everyone was on board. Some FBI types had reservations about issuing another alert without any details. Other counterterrorism officials, one tells TIME, "are scratching their heads over this alert. Nothing is jumping out in the reports as being more of a threat than we've already had."
One of the potential targets the government hinted at last week wasn't based on specific intelligence at all. Sources tell TIME that Bush Administration officials are increasingly concerned about nuclear terrorism (see next story), primarily because of the perceived vulnerability of the nation's 103 nuclear power plants. With that in mind, on the same day the alert went out from Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission quietly directed plants to bolster their perimeter defenses. Eleven states have already called up the National Guard to help in that effort. The FAA also issued an 11.5-mile no-fly zone for small planes (though it is in effect for only about a week), and F-16 fighter pilots are at the ready. While most reactors were built to withstand the impact of a small aircraft, a 1982 study concluded that a commercial airplane flying at high speed could pierce the concrete dome that protects the reactor core.
Even as the debate over disclosure continues within the intelligence community, the Bush Administration feels that it has no choice but to keep the public apprised. What would people say if America were attacked again in a ghastly way and it was revealed that the Administration had had an inkling of it ahead of time? Besides, the Administration figures that any bulletin that goes out to 18,000 law-enforcement agencies over NLETS would invariably find its way into the press.
Although there is no solid evidence to support the point, officials also stress that such public advisories could act, and may have already acted, as a deterrent against future attacks. "It's a difficult and fine line we walk," Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge said at a briefing last week. "But I think America understands, and hopefully appreciates, that when there's that kind of information available to us, we just share it, incomplete as it may be."