Former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz said yesterday that he was "startled" by a little-noticed State Department memo that was issued a week ago and warned that Americans "may be the target of a terrorist threat."
The memo, issued just four days before the attacks on New York and Washington, identified the threat as coming from "extremist groups with links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization."
"I have not idea what intelligence lies behind the warning," Shultz said, ''but they put this out because they had some sort of intelligence."
Shultz, who served as secretary of state under President Reagan, said he received a copy of the Sept. 7 "worldwide warning" in his San Francisco office on the day before the fatal attacks. The memo addressed concerns for Americans overseas and made no mention of any possible attack on U.S. soil.
Reached last night, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein said this was the first she had heard anything about the State Department warnings.
"Everyone should have been (alerted), but then you would have to ask whether they would have known what to look out for," Feinstein said.
"Of course," Feinstein said, "today is a different world, and I think a lot of things are going to change.
"Bin Laden's people had made statements three weeks ago carried in the Arab press in Great Britain that they were preparing to carry out unprecedented attacks in the U.S.," she said. "Whether that was the derivation of this (State Department ) bulletin, I don't know."
The warning dealt primarily with military bases in Japan and Korea.
But as Shultz pointed out, the mere fact that a warning was issued indicates that "something was cooking."
And indeed, in the one-page alert, the State Department said it had received information in May 2001 "that American citizens may be the target of a terrorist threat from extremist groups with links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization."
"Such individuals have not distinguished between official and civilian targets," the report said, adding, "As always, we take this information seriously. U.S. Government facilities worldwide remain on heightened alert."
"They had some sort of rumbling of something," Shultz said, "even if they didn't pinpoint it in the right direction."
U.S. State Department representative Julie Reside in Washington downplayed the significance of the bulletin yesterday, saying it was only the latest in a series of "periodically" issued public warnings by the department.
Reside said warnings are available to media organizations and on the state department's Web page.
"If it was based on intelligence, we cannot, of course, provide any details, " Reside said.
It's not the first time this year that the bin Laden organization was mentioned in a "worldwide caution." The first warning came in May, and was later updated on Sept. 7 to include the threats to U.S. military personnel in Asia.
Officials at San Francisco International Airport said they weren't aware of the State Department warning - but someone in the airport security section knew of it and passed word of the warning onto Mayor Willie Brown when he called to check on the status of flight he was planning to take to New York.
"I didn't give it much thought at the time," Brown said. "It wasn't until after the attacks that I even remembered the call."
Whether U.S. military installations around the world were aware of the memo and took extra precautions is a bit unclear. Department of Defense spokesman Glenn Flood said his agency would have received a copy of the bulletin. But, he added, "There was no order from the Pentagon for every base to go on heightened alert, because that's up to the commands in each theater, and some are on alert anyway."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher made mention of the bulletin at a routine -- and sparsely attended -- media briefing last Friday. He explained that the department was revising a June 22 notice to include warnings about threats to the military in Japan and Korea and "to ensure that the general American public is aware of this potential danger to their safety."
Boucher declined to say whether the threat in Asia was directly linked to bin Laden.
E-mail Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross at [email protected]
Copyright SF Chronicle 2002. Reprinted for fair use only
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