Intelligence regarding al Qaeda plans to attack U.S. embassies, officials, and interests last Sunday was known for months by U.S. intelligence agencies but was used only recently to trigger the closure of embassies and issuance of public warnings of impending attacks.
Al Qaeda "chatter" about coming terrorist operations, mainly against 22 U.S. embassies and consulates, and threats to attack or bomb officials in the Middle East and elsewhere was widely reported in classified intelligence reports over several months. The report said an attack was planned for Sunday, although no attack was carried out.
The intelligence was based on electronic surveillance of al Qaeda communications indicating some type of spectacular bombing or other attacks was being planned and would in fact be carried out very soon.
The timing of the administration’s announced closure of numerous U.S. embassies in the Middle East has raised concerns among some U.S. officials that the Obama administration is politicizing intelligence to distract attention from the Benghazi and other scandals.
"Why is this coming out now?" asked one official with access to terrorist threat data. "Is the administration trying to suck up news coverage with the embassy threats to distract attention from what the CIA was doing in Benghazi?"
Press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at the White House Monday that "we take the threat very seriously and have taken action because of that."
"I'm not in a position to discuss specific intelligence, but we believe that this threat is significant, and we are taking it seriously for that reason and have taken the actions that the State Department announced out of an abundance of caution and will continue to monitor this and take action as necessary," Carney said.
Carney said the threat was "emanating from and maybe directed towards the Arabian Peninsula."
"The extension of those closures does not reflect a new stream of threat information but is more a reflection of taking necessary precautions," he said.
The threat followed three reported U.S. drone strikes in Yemen that killed several al Qaeda terrorists who were traveling in vehicles. Missile attacks from U.S. armed drones were carried out July 27, July 30, and Aug. 1 in al Qaeda strongholds in Yemen.
A U.S. official said the terrorist threat does not appear to be part of any retaliation for the drone attacks because terrorist planning for a major bombing or other attacks usually takes weeks or months.
Former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Pete Hoekstra said he is concerned that the administration may be politicizing intelligence because "they have politicized everything."
"If there is any hint at all that this [latest terror threat] was politicized, it would be absolutely outrageous," Hoekstra said in an interview.
"In an era of ‘phony’ scandals, let’s hope no one is playing politics with national security and threat alerts," Hoekstra told the Washington Free Beacon, referring to President Obama’s recent dismissal of Benghazi and other administration scandals as "phony."
A former White House intelligence official said suggestions the terror alert was hyped deserve the attention of the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees.
The former official said national security policymakers traditionally weigh what to do in response to indications and warning intelligence through careful internal discussion.
"There usually comes a time when you have to decide whether the intelligence is something you act on, and that can always be a tough call, even without politicization," the former official said.
For the Obama administration, the type of politicization of intelligence that has taken place under the president has created a situation where the average person has little confidence in claims that terrorists are planning major attacks.
"They have debased the coinage of the realm: trust," the former official said.
The former official said the administration’s response to the Benghazi attack of Sept. 11 is a case in point.
"If you would lie about Benghazi and make up the story about the cause being a YouTube video, what else wouldn’t you do?" he asked.
Great harm has been done to the credibility of U.S. intelligence agencies by politicizing intelligence and one effect is that when terrorist alerts are issued, people question the government’s motives, the former official said.
"In that context, I think we’ve reached the point where the two congressional intelligence oversight committee should take a look into this, just to put the public’s mind at rest," the former official said.
Susan Phalen, a spokeswoman for House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, declined to comment when asked if the chairman Mike Rogers (R., Mich.) had any concerns about the latest threat intelligence being politicized.
Brian Weiss, a spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Feinstein has not commented on the recent terror alert.
White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said: "This assertion is ludicrous and insulting."
Other U.S. officials pointed to the bipartisan expressions of concerns about the terror threat.
Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.), a member of the intelligence committee, said the terrorist threat was "so specific" as to the method of the attack but did not specify where, other than in the Middle East or Europe and against a U.S. embassy or against a target in the United States.
"It could be a series of combined attacks," King said on ABC’s "This Week."
Disclosure of the terrorist threat followed new reports that the CIA had begun giving polygraph or lie-detector tests to CIA contractors and officials involved in the covert action program in Benghazi to gather weapons circulating after the revolution that toppled Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi.
A CIA annex was attacked by the terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, and two CIA contractors and former Navy SEALs.
The CIA was involved in shipping arms from Libya to Turkey and to Syrian rebels, according to U.S. officials.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said on CNN’s "State of the Union," that he met recently with Vice President Joseph Biden on the terrorist threat.
"It is scary," Graham said. "Al Qaeda’s on the rise in this part of the world. The [National Security Agency monitoring] program is proving its worth yet again."
Graham praised the administration for announcing the terror threat that he said was different than its response to Benghazi.
"Benghazi was a complete failure," Graham said. "The threats were real there. The reporting was real and we basically dropped the ball. We’ve learned from Benghazi, thank God, and the administration is doing it right."
However, one U.S. official compared the recent terrorism alert to the Clinton administration’s cruise missile strike on Afghanistan Aug. 20, 1998.
That attack came three days after then-President Bill Clinton testified before a federal grand jury about his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The cruise missile strike missed killing al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and was widely viewed by pundits as a "wag the dog" political attempt by the president to divert public attention from his sex scandal.
Clinton administration officials at the time and years later defended the missile attack as a legitimate attempt to kill the al Qaeda leader.
Katherine Zimmerman, who specializes in al Qaeda at the American Enterprise Institute, said that while the attack did not take place as expected on Sunday, a more likely date would be Wednesday.
The State Department issued a worldwide caution on Aug. 2 warning of the increased danger of a terrorist attack in the Middle East and North Africa. The closure of embassies and consulates came after credible threats of an attack to be carried out Sunday.
"It is possible that [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] intentionally tipped-off the American intelligence community (IC) to test America’s security posture abroad," she wrote on AEI’s "Critical Threats" blog. "If this is the case, it is unlikely that AQAP planned to conduct the attack on Aug. 4."
Zimmerman said the attack could take place Aug. 7 since that is the last day of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan and it is also the 15-year anniversary of the al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Aug. 2 marked the 23-year anniversary of the 1991 Persian Gulf war that led to the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia – something denounced by bin Laden as an affront to Islam, whose holy sites are located in the kingdom.