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After 9/11 anniversary, White House still worried about 'lone wolf'

Tuesday - 9/20/2011, 4:42am  ET

BenRhodes White House
President Barack Obama talks with top national security strategist Ben Rhodes. (Courtesy of the White House)

J.J. Green,

WASHINGTON - Walking briskly through the basement level corridor toward his office in the West Wing of the White House, Ben Rhodes -- deputy national security adviser for strategic communications -- is on a mission.

Two days before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, every available police officer in Washington is on duty after the emergence of a "specific, credible, but unconfirmed" threat to attack "New York and or Washington" on or around the anniversary.

"It's serious enough that it led us to take additional precautions and the president has asked his national security team to redouble efforts to run down this threat," says Rhodes, carefully measuring his statements.

Earlier that day, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI sent out a nationwide dispatch to law enforcement that read:

"While this specific threat reporting indicates al-Qa'ida may be considering an attack using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) -- likely similar to the tactic used by Faisal Shahzad used in his attempted attack on Times Square on 1 May 2010 -- we assess that al-Qa'ida and its affiliates have also considered attacks with small-arms, homemade explosive devices, and poisons, and probably provide their operatives with enough autonomy to select the particular target and method of attack."

As the day grows late, the problem for Rhodes is that while there are specific details about the plot and it comes from a credible source, "We're not able to fully confirm it," he says.

"Fully" is the operative word.

Rhodes would not elaborate on what that meant, but Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-Md., the ranking member on the House Select Intelligence Committee, seemed to fill in the blanks during a C-SPAN broadcast on Sept. 14.

"We had a credible source and that source did not get the information -- the source got it from someone else who was not credible," Ruppersberger said.

Credible or not, the threat was not a surprise.

"For several months we've been anticipating the potential for a group like al-Qaida to take advantage of the 9/11 anniversary and we know from the information we found in bin Laden's compound that he was focused on the 10th anniversary," says Rhodes.

More than a week after the anniversary, visible signs of increased police activity persist around the country, even though top intelligence officials believe al-Qaida is too weak to launch another Sept. 11-style attack.

But Rhodes says the organization's diluted status has forced it to turn to another weapon.

"The thing that concerns us is the lone wolf," he says.

The possibility of a lone wolf attack has become such a concern for the U.S. government that it was "mentioned for the first time in our national security strategy," Rhodes says.

"As al-Qaida has been damaged as an organization, they've lost the capability to carry out complex operations where they train recruits and deploy them on missions like 9/11, which is a very complex plot that involved a lot of time," Rhodes says. To make up for that "they try inspiring other individuals to launch attacks who live in the U.S. -- people who may never have traveled to a training camp, for instance, or may not even have had any contact with al-Qaida but are inspired to engage in acts of violence."

Other top national security players recognize the urgency of the situation and realize that the "lone wolf" is not just a threat here in the homeland.

"The Department of Defense is on the tip of the spear in Afghanistan and other places where terrorists operate and we are part of a broader U.S. government partnership that seeks to thwart terrorists," Department of Defense spokesman George Little says. "To the extent that we have information who might want to harm the U.S., whether it's our homeland or our interest, we are an important part of that equation."

Rhodes, who worked on policy recommendations for the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, understands that the isolated operative is in many ways more difficult to neutralize than a large, multifaceted organization like al-Qaida.

Thus, cooperation and sharing among U.S. agencies is needed now more than ever.

"The Federal Government will invest in intelligence to understand this threat and expand community engagement and development programs to empower local communities," Rhodes wrote in the latest National Security Strategy, released in May.

Recognizing that operatives who work alone need cover, the Obama national security team is seeking to engage and empower the public to help them root out operatives.

At the same time, Rhodes was reluctant to give up specific information about the current threat.

"We don't want to comment on specific intelligence that we're collecting and pursuing as it relates to the threat," he says. "What we want people to be is particularly vigilant, because these threats can manifest themselves in different ways."

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. -- Rhodes' former boss who served as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission -- said it was a "failure of imagination" that led to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Rhodes is pushing to ensure that doesn't happen on his watch.

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