Wrong CIA Analysis Triggered Major 2003 Terror Alert
Published on Tuesday June 28, 2005 by the Agence France Presse
Wrong CIA Analysis Triggered Major 2003 Terror Alert

A mistaken CIA analysis of an Arabic-language television broadcast triggered a major terror alert in United States in 2003 and the cancellation of nearly 30 international flights, NBC News said.

The color-coded terror alert system went from yellow to orange, after CIA agents thought they saw secret numbers encoded in the moving text at the bottom of the screen of an Al-Jazeera broadcast, NBC said late Monday.

The "scrawl" was thought to contain attack dates, flight numbers and geographic coordinates for targets, which included the White House, Seattle's tallest structure, the Space Needle, and even the small town of Tappahanock in Virginia.

For weeks after Christmas 2003, a high level terror alert was maintained leading to the cancellation of almost 30 international flights by Air France, British Airways, Continental and Aeromexico, the news service said.

In the end, the treasure of secret information the Central Intelligence Agency analysts thought they had uncovered turned out to be completely wrong.

However, nothing was revealed to the public about the mistake until NBC News was told by unidentified senior US officials.

Tom Ridge, who was Secretary of Homeland Security at the time of the snafu, in an interview with NBC defended the CIA analysis at the time, although he did call it "bizarre, unique, unorthodox, unprecedented."

"Maybe that's very much the reason that you'd be worried about it, because you hadn't seen it before," said Ridge, who during the 2003 terror alert said it was based on "credible sources."

Intelligence sources consulted by NBC defended the technique then used of "steganography" -- messages hidden inside a video image, saying it was a valid subject for CIA analysis.

Ridge said the US government had no choice but take the suspected terror messages seriously at the time.

"We acted accordingly, based on our best information and best conclusions and the information that we had at the time," he said.

However, he added, "speaking for myself I've got to admit to wondering whether or not it was credible."

© 2005 AFP