Nuclear plants possible terror targets, memo warns
From Steve Young
NEW YORK (CNN) -- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent a confidential memo to power plants nationwide last week warning of plans for a terrorist attack in which hijackers are to "fly a commercial aircraft into a nuclear power plant." If fighter jets intervene, the plan calls for terrorists to divert the "mission to any tall building."
In a memo dated January 23, the NRC said "no specific timeline or location was given for the attack," but FBI headquarters had sent the warning to all of its field offices. CNN learned of the memo Thursday.
However, a senior FBI source said the memo was based on old information from late last year on a threat that could not be verified, and that the information was inadvertently re-circulated last week.
The FBI alerted its field offices to this threat in December, and the information was passed on to nuclear power plants, according to a U.S. government official.
The FBI source said the information was "thoroughly vetted," but "it could not be verified or substantiated."
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the White House Office of Homeland Security, also stressed that the threat "is uncorroborated and not specific to any particular time, target or date."
In a related development, the FBI's division that monitors threat assessments alerted law enforcement agencies Wednesday about the discovery of a computer belonging to an individual with "indirect links" to Osama bin Laden.
The computer showed that the individual was interested in "structural engineering as it related to dams and other water-retaining structures," the National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) said.
The FBI unit also said law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies "have received indications" that al Qaeda members have sought information about computer software that is used to monitor and control industrial plants' status and logging information.
"They specifically sought information on water supply and wastewater management practices in the U.S. and abroad. There has also been interest in insecticides and pest control products at several Web sites," the NIPC bulletin said.
In the Nuclear Regulatory Commission memo, the agency said, "During debriefings of an al Qaeda senior operative, he stated there would be a second airline attack in the U.S. The attack was already planned and three individuals were on the ground in the states recruiting non-Arabs to take part in the attack. The plan is to fly a commercial aircraft into a nuclear power plant to be chosen by the team on the ground."
It added: "The plan included diverting the mission to any tall building if a military aircraft intercepts the plane."
The advisory stated that FBI agents in Washington state had contacted Columbia Generating Station, the state's only commercial nuclear power plant. It did not elaborate.
"FBI headquarters cannot at this time provide a complete assessment of the credibility of the information. No additional actions are requested in response to this advisory at this time," the NRC said.
The memo, which was designated "not for public disclosure," went to power plants across the nation, including all 103 U.S. nuclear plants.
"You will be advised of any pertinent changes as soon as possible," the NRC said at the end of the advisory.
One senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity said the threat issue is an "ongoing matter of concern" for the White House.
The official pointed to how President Bush, in his State of the Union address, talked about how "diagrams of American nuclear power plants and public water facilities" along with "surveillance maps of American cities and thorough descriptions of landmarks in America and throughout the world" were found in Afghanistan caves.
This official said Bush will continue "very vividly reminding the American people about the threats to our infrastructure including nuclear power plants."
"(The) threat is still real," said the official, adding that is why the nation remains on a heightened state of alert.
Other U.S. officials told CNN on Thursday that al Qaeda operatives have apparently been casing the United States for possible targets of future attacks -- a conclusion reached after finding the various materials in Afghanistan caves and safe houses.
U.S. forces found a picture of Seattle's Space Needle in one location, sources said. Washington state, officials said, was apparently a prime al Qaeda target. Speaking to a senior citizens volunteer group in Florida on Thursday, Bush made a general reference to the discoveries in "those al Qaeda caves in Afghanistan."
"We found some of their aspirations in terms of creating harm for America," he said. "For example, they targeted some of our citizens or some of our infrastructure."
Two weeks ago, the intelligence community issued a new "assessment of intent" report based on the discoveries and warning of possible al Qaeda attacks in the United States and overseas, U.S. officials told CNN.
The documents suggested al Qaeda -- whose fighters have been on the run since the fall of the Taliban regime -- had been looking at possibly crashing an airplane into a power plant in Washington state.
Officials emphasized they have no specific intelligence about timing or location of any attack. "If we had specific information about the timing and place of a particular attack, we would get that to the authorities lightning quick," FBI Director Robert Mueller said when asked about the matter.
U.S. military intelligence is also concerned about new intercepts and other intelligence gathered over the past few weeks, suggesting a possible attack against a military target overseas.
-- CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report.
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Photo of Seattle's Space Needle found in Afghanistan
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