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Context of 'November 8, 2007: FBI Warns Al-Qaeda May Strike Shopping Malls in LA and Chicago; Credibility of Threat Is Doubted'

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InfraGard logo.InfraGard logo. [Source: Progressive.org]Twenty-three thousand executives and employees of various private firms work with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. The group, called InfraGard, receives secret warnings of terrorist threats well in advance of public notification, and sometimes before elected officials. In return, InfraGard provides information to the government. InfraGard is a quiet quasi-governmental entity which wields an unknown, but extensive, amount of power and influence. Michael Hershman, the chairman of the advisory board of the InfraGard National Members Alliance (INMA) and the CEO of an international consulting firm, calls InfraGard “a child of the FBI.” The organization started in Cleveland in 1996, when business members cooperated with the FBI to investigate cyber-threats. The FBI then “cloned it,” according to Phyllis Schneck, chairman of the board of directors of the INMA. Schneck is one of the biggest proponents of InfraGard. As of February 2008, 86 chapters of InfraGard exist in each of the 50 states, operating under the supervision of local FBI agents. “We are the owners, operators, and experts of our critical infrastructure, from the CEO of a large company in agriculture or high finance to the guy who turns the valve at the water utility,” says Schneck. According to the InfraGard website, “At its most basic level, InfraGard is a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the private sector. InfraGard chapters are geographically linked with FBI Field Office territories.” After the 9/11 attacks, InfraGard experiences explosive growth—from 1,700 members in November 2001 to 23,682 members in January 2008. 350 members of the Fortune 500 have members in InfraGard. Prospective members are sponsored by existing members, then vetted by the FBI. The organization accepts members from agriculture, banking and finance, and chemical industry, defense, energy, food, information and telecommunications, law enforcement, public health, and transportation industries.
Controlled Exposure - InfraGard’s inner workings are not available to the general public; its communications with the FBI and DHS are not accessible through the Freedom of Information Act under the “trade secrets” exemption. And InfraGard carefully controls its exposure and contact with the media. According to the InfraGard website: “The interests of InfraGard must be protected whenever presented to non-InfraGard members. During interviews with members of the press, controlling the image of InfraGard being presented can be difficult. Proper preparation for the interview will minimize the risk of embarrassment.… The InfraGard leadership and the local FBI representative should review the submitted questions, agree on the predilection of the answers, and identify the appropriate interviewee.… Tailor answers to the expected audience.… Questions concerning sensitive information should be avoided.”
Advance Warning from the FBI - InfraGard members receive quick alerts on any potential terrorist threat or a possible disruption of US infrastructure. Its website boasts that its members can “[g]ain access to an FBI secure communication network complete with VPN encrypted website, webmail, listservs, message boards, and much more.” Hershman says members receive “almost daily updates” on threats “emanating from both domestic sources and overseas.” Schneck adds, “We get very easy access to secure information that only goes to InfraGard members. People are happy to be in the know.” Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, an InfraGard member passed along an FBI warning about a potential threat to California’s bridges to then-Governor Gray Davis, who had not yet heard anything from the FBI (see November 1, 2001). In return, InfraGard members cooperate with FBI and DHS operations. Schneck says: “InfraGard members have contributed to about 100 FBI cases. What InfraGard brings you is reach into the regional and local communities. We are a 22,000-member vetted body of subject-matter experts that reaches across seventeen matrixes. All the different stovepipes can connect with InfraGard.” The relationships between the FBI and InfraGard members are key, she says. “If you had to call 1-800-FBI, you probably wouldn’t bother,” she says. “But if you knew Joe from a local meeting you had with him over a donut, you might call them. Either to give or to get. We want everyone to have a little black book.” InfraGard members have phone numbers for DHS, the FBI, and to report cyber-threats. InfraGard members who call in “will be listened to,” she says; “your call [will] go through when others will not.” The American Civil Liberties Union, who has warned about the potential dangers of Infragard to constitutional liberties (see August 2004), retorts, “The FBI should not be creating a privileged class of Americans who get special treatment. There’s no ‘business class’ in law enforcement. If there’s information the FBI can share with 22,000 corporate bigwigs, why don’t they just share it with the public? That’s who their real ‘special relationship’ is supposed to be with. Secrecy is not a party favor to be given out to friends.… This bears a disturbing resemblance to the FBI’s handing out ‘goodies’ to corporations in return for folding them into its domestic surveillance machinery.”
Preparing for Emergencies, Martial Law - InfraGard members are “very much looped into our readiness capability,” says a DHS spokeswoman. Not only does DHS “provide speakers” and do “joint presentations” with the FBI, but “[w]e also train alongside them, and they have participated in readiness exercises.” InfraGard members are involved with the Bush administration’s “National Continuity Policy,” which mandates that DHS coordinate with “private sector owners and operators of critical infrastructure, as appropriate, in order to provide for the delivery of essential services during an emergency.” InfraGard members participate in “national emergency preparation drills,” Schneck says, sometimes by the hundreds. InfraGard members are drilling in preparation for martial law, members say. One business owner recently attended a meeting conducted by FBI and DHS officials. He recalls, “The meeting started off innocuously enough, with the speakers talking about corporate espionage. From there, it just progressed. All of a sudden we were knee deep in what was expected of us when martial law is declared. We were expected to share all our resources, but in return we’d be given specific benefits.” In the event of martial law being declared, Infragard members will have the ability to travel in restricted areas and to evacuate citizens. But they will have other abilities and duties as well. InfraGard members, says the business owner, will be authorized to “shoot to kill” if necessary to maintain order and “protect our portion of the infrastructure. [I]f we had to use deadly force to protect it, we couldn’t be prosecuted.… We were assured that if we were forced to kill someone to protect our infrastructure, there would be no repercussions. It gave me goose bumps. It chilled me to the bone.” Other InfraGard members deny that they have ever been told such; Schneck says InfraGard members will have no civil patrol or law enforcement responsibilities. The FBI calls such assertions “ridiculous.” But the business owner’s story has been corroborated by other InfraGard members. “There have been discussions like that, that I’ve heard of and participated in,” says Christine Moerke, an InfraGard member from Wisconsin. [InfraGard, 2008; Progressive, 2/7/2008]

Entity Tags: Michael Hershman, US Department of Homeland Security, Christine Moerke, Bush administration (43), American Civil Liberties Union, Federal Bureau of Investigation, InfraGard National Members Alliance, Gray Davis, Phyllis Schneck, InfraGard

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Joe Webber.Joe Webber. [Source: US Customs]Joe Webber, running the Houston office of the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, starts investigating a man believed to be raising money for Islamic militants. The suspect is in direct contact with people who are known to be associated with Osama bin Laden. Webber has good cooperation with the local FBI office, federal prosecutors in Houston, and Justice Department officials in Washington. However, he claims that FBI headquarters officials tell him point blank that he will not be allowed to conduct his investigation. After many months of delays from the FBI, friends from within the bureau tell him that headquarters will not allow the investigation to proceed because it is being run by Customs and not by the FBI. Webber is so upset that he eventually becomes a whistleblower. Sen. Charles Grassley and other politicians support his case and say there are other instances where the FBI impedes investigations because of turf battles. Asked if the FBI would put a turf battle above national security, Webber says, “That’s absolutely my impression. You would think, in a post-9/11 environment, that an event like that wouldn’t occur. But it did.” [MSNBC, 6/3/2005]

Entity Tags: US Customs Service, Joe Webber, Charles Grassley, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In Lebanon, Ohio, Warren County officials close the county administration building to the public where the vote is being tallied. The lockdown—the only one to occur in the state—is a result of a decision that was made during a closed-door meeting the previous week (See October 28, 2004). Warren County Emergency Services Director Frank Young had recommended the increased security because of information received from the US Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. [Cincinnati Enquirer, 11/5/2004] An FBI agent reportedly said that Warren County ranked a “10” on a terrorism scale of 1 to 10. The threat was said to be of domestic origins. [Cincinnati Enquirer, 11/10/2004] But these claims are later challenged when officials from the FBI and DHS say that they were not aware of any such threats. Media organizations protest the lockdown, arguing that the officials are violating the law and the public’s rights. “The media should have been permitted into the area where there was counting,” Enquirer attorney Jack Greiner complains. “This is a process that should be done in complete transparency and it wasn’t.” In other Ohio counties, such as Butler County, people are permitted to observe ballot checkers through a window. In past elections, the Warren County commissioners’ room was open to the public so they could observe the process. [Cincinnati Enquirer, 11/3/2004; Cincinnati Enquirer, 11/5/2004] The news director at WCPO-TV, Bob Morford, says he’s suspicious of the decision to close the building to the public. I’ve “never seen anything like it,” he says. “Frankly, we consider that a red herring…. That’s something that’s put up when you don’t know what else to put up to keep us out.” [Cincinnati Enquirer, 11/5/2004] Additionally, election officials fail to set up an area with telephones for the media as they were supposed to. When reporters attempt to enter the building, they are refused, although they are later permitted into the building’s lobby located two floors below the elections office. The Associated Press, which has reporters at every Ohio board of elections site, says that Warren County is the only county to implement such tight restrictions. County Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel claims that having reporters and photographers around could interfere with the vote count. [Cincinnati Enquirer, 11/5/2004] It is later explained that these restrictions were also due to homeland security concerns. [Cincinnati Enquirer, 11/10/2004]

Entity Tags: Jack Greiner, Rachel Hutzel, Bob Morford

Timeline Tags: 2004 Elections

The FBI warns that al-Qaeda operatives are planning several holiday attacks on US shopping malls in Los Angeles and Chicago over the holiday period. [ABC News, 11/8/2007] In an intelligence report distributed to law enforcement authorities, the FBI says that the attacks have been planned for two years with the goal of disrupting the US economy. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 11/7/2007 pdf file] The FBI received the information in late September and declassified it for the intelligence information reports. These reports routinely contain raw, unvetted or uncorroborated chatter about possible threats. It is estimated that the FBI released 8,000 such reports over the last year. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security Department have released about 200 threat bulletins possible plot trends that are based on actual events worldwide. [SF Gate, 11/8/2007] Questions are immediately raised about the alert. [ABC News, 11/8/2007] As with previous threats, some in the media question the timing and necessity of such a warning. The FBI anticipates this and clarifies its intentions in releasing the memo. The report states that “this information was obtained through a lengthy chain of acquisition, and was provided to the source by a sub-source who spoke in confidence. The veracity of the information is uncertain but the threat is being reported due to the nature of the information.” [ABC News, 11/8/2007] Other intelligence officers raise the possibility that it could be “disinformation.” It is believed that the source only has “indirect access” to al-Qaeda. It is common for jihadist web sites and chat rooms to have comments discussing attacks on “soft targets,” such as shopping malls. Special Agent Richard Kolko says “out of abundance of caution, and for any number of other reasons, raw intelligence is regularly shared within the intelligence and law enforcement communities - even when the value of the information is unknown… Al-Qaeda messaging has clearly stated they intend to attack the US or its interests; however, there is no information to state this is a credible threat. As always, we remind people to remain vigilant and report suspicious activity to authorities.” A Homeland Security official says “we have no credible, specific information suggesting an imminent attack.” [ABC News, 11/8/2007] LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa urges residents to go about their daily routines, but says that they should be “mindful of anything out of the ordinary.” [SF Gate, 11/8/2007]

Entity Tags: Antonio Villaraigosa, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Al-Qaeda, US Department of Homeland Security, Joe Gandelman, Richard Kolko

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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