Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Tuesday the government concluded "it was essential" to publicize detailed surveillance documents and raise the terror alert, even though the intelligence information dated from as far back as 2000 and 2001.
Speaking at a news conference in New York, Ridge said that because of the heightened security steps, "We have made it much more difficult for the terrorists to achieve their broad objectives."
Yet investigators said they are still trying to determine whether the individuals who amassed the information, principally on financial institutions in New York, Newark and Washington, are still in the country and plotting, or whether the plot was old.
The investigators also are looking at a possible link between the Pakistani militant who was the source of the surveillance documents and the devastating Kenya and Tanzania bombings in 1998, said a senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A White House spokesman also defended the release of the information, even if some of it appeared to be old — and said some of the surveillance was apparently updated as recently as January of this year. He gave no details.
"I think you have to keep in mind al-Qaida's history of planning attacks well in advance and then updating those plans just before attacking," said spokesman Scott McClellan, traveling with President Bush on Air Force One.
The senior Justice official said federal government investigators are operating under the assumption that the plot was ongoing.
But a senior U.S. law enforcement official said officials were still trying to determine if that was the case or whether the plot had already expired. The law enforcement official, also speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation continues, said the surveillance information seized in Pakistan consisted of information about possible targets, but not the full outline of any plot.
Many of the paper documents showing the surveillance on the U.S. buildings were undated, meaning investigators are having to work backwards to try to match particular descriptions of security with known details of security at the buildings at certain points in time — to determine when the documents were created, the senior law enforcement official said.
The federal government has said there was surveillance on the Citigroup Center building and the New York Stock Exchange in New York, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank buildings in Washington and Prudential Financial Inc.'s headquarters in Newark, N.J.
Ridge said there was no indication that terrorists had infiltrated the financial institutions themselves in order to obtain information about them. That view was echoed Tuesday by a World Bank spokesman, Damian Milverton.
"There is no suggestion that al-Qaida penetrated the building here at all," Milverton said.
But the senior Justice official said there are indications that the surveillance was detailed enough that people who work in the buildings might have knowingly or unknowingly assisted — perhaps by inadvertently giving out information.
Top Bush administration officials denied any allegations that the public release of the information now, and the raising of the terror alert, were politically motivated. They said the information was released now because it was just uncovered in Pakistan.
"We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security," Ridge said. "Our job is to identify the threat."
The surveillance actions taken by the plotters were "originally done between 2000 and 2001, but were updated — some were updated — as recently as January of this year," Fran Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser, said Tuesday on NBC's "Today" show. She gave no details.
In addition to the five buildings directly named, the information that led to the increased threat level also included references to the Nasdaq and American Stock Exchange buildings in New York and the Bank of America building in San Francisco, said a senior counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Two other facilities in New York and undisclosed buildings in Washington and New Jersey were also mentioned.
Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the department continues to analyze and review intelligence information that makes references to other targets. However, he stressed that such references are not unusual and the information about the other buildings were limited or generic references that did not suggest the same level of surveillance as on the five named buildings.
As they tried to determine if the plot was old, U.S. investigators were examining a possible link between the surveillance documents and a man tied to the Kenya and Tanzania bombings of 1998.
U.S. officials have said that the trove of hundreds of photos and written documents that led to Sunday's warning about new risks of terror attacks came largely from a Pakistani computer engineer, Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, also known as Abu Talha, who was captured in mid-July in Pakistan.
The arrest of another man, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian with a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head, followed that very shortly. Under questioning, Ghailani — who is cooperating with investigators — corroborated the material that was found in the surveillance documents, said the senior Justice Department official.
Ghailani is wanted for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa and has been on the loose in Pakistan since those occurred.