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Seven Indicted in Alleged Plot Against Sears Tower

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Federal authorities have charged seven people with conspiring with al-Qaida to wage war against the United States. Officials say the men were plotting to attack Chicago's Sears Tower. The seven were arrested yesterday in Florida, where they were allegedly targeting several other buildings. To learn what's known so far, we've called NPR's Larry Abramson, who's in the studio.

Larry, good morning.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who are these people?

ABRAMSON: Well, from what we know of them, right now, five of the seven are U.S. citizens; they're described as young men. And they're facing a very serious indictment levying war against the United States.

And in detail, one of them is named Narseal Batiste. And the indictment says that he was planning for a mission to wage war against the United States by trying to obtain money and support from al-Qaida. He got in touch with what he thought was a member of al-Qaida and asked him for boots, uniforms, machine guns, radios and vehicles, and $50,000 in cash. We don't have the full indictment right now, so we don't know whether or not he, in fact, was in touch with al-Qaida or whether or not a government informant entrapped him. We're going to find that out a little bit later when Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez talks about these charges.

INSKEEP: Which gets to an essential question here, or an important question anyway, whether these people really are part of al-Qaida or not.

ABRAMSON: Right. Well, the early reports are that the government did not seize any explosives or guns so we don't know how far along this plot was. It may have just been in the conspiracy stage. The early indications that I got from talking with people was that this was not a full-blown attempt to actually enact a plot, it was a conspiracy to enact a plot. And, of course, the government has been criticized in the past for only going after basically failed attempts, not getting the most serious terrorists who are out there, only getting people who had an idea that they wanted to do something but didn't really have the means to do it.

INSKEEP: So now we're learning more about this indictment and these arrests at the same time that we are learning about another development in the war on terror, a tool that the U.S. government has been using to track the finances of suspected terrorists. What are you learning about that?

ABRAMSON: What we know, Steve, is that a number of news organizations came on this apparently at the same time, and they uncovered what the Bush administration is referring to as a terrorist financing tool.

What the tool did was basically search through a database known as SWIFT. It's based in Belgium and it handles billions of financial transactions every year for nearly 8,000 banks. And basically, this allowed investigators to take a name, search through the database for that name. They said that they were only going after names that they knew were linked to al-Qaida, and the idea was to step up the pressure on financing of terrorism by searching through this huge database of financial transactions.

INSKEEP: Did they get a search warrant?

ABRAMSON: No, they didn't. They were able to use a type of administrative subpoena; that's something the government can issue on its own, without judicial oversight. Ordinarily, you're right, you would have to get a search warrant or a subpoena, which has court oversight, in order to get access to these records. And that's going to raise questions about whether or not this program infringed on people's civil liberties. Because, invariably, when you launch these kinds of wide-ranging searches, you're going to search the records of some innocent people. However, Secretary of the Treasury John Snow said this is not a fishing expedition, he said it is rather a sharp harpoon aimed at the heart of terrorist activity.

INSKEEP: Are there similarities, and differences as well, between this program and the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program that you've been reporting on.

ABRAMSON: They're similar in that there's a limited or no court oversight for both programs. I think the big difference is that communications in this country enjoy extraordinary privacy privileges. You have to have the highest order of court order to get access to communications. Financial transactions, actually, are reported on quite regularly to the government. The government has access, particularly in this case the president relied on emergency economic authority that he can invoke and used after 9/11.

INSKEEP: Larry, thanks very much.

ABRAMSON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Larry Abramson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Larry Abramson
Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.