As millions converged on Washington last year to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama, security officials were concerned that among them were extremists traveling from Somalia to set off explosives as Obama took the oath of office, The New York Times reported on its Web site Monday.
The magazine report, to coincide with the first anniversary of Obama's inauguration, says that for 72 hours before the new president was sworn in intelligence agencies worked around the clock trying to figure our whether the threat was real and what, if anything, should be done if a terrorist struck while millions watched on the Mall and tens of millions more saw the ceremony on television.
“All the data points suggested there was a real threat evolving quickly that had an overseas component,” Juan Carlos Zarate, President George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, told me in November. As the inauguration approached, signs of a plot “seemed to be growing in credibility and relevance.” Another senior Bush official involved in those tense events a year ago said last fall that protecting the new president was not enough. Even a failed attack would send a debilitating message to the world. “If something happens on the podium and there’s chaos,” this official told me, “that’s the first time you see the new president, and you really don’t want that.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the only Cabinet member who had been sworn in by Jan. 20, was spirited off to a secret location during the inauguration in case the worst happened. And if it did, officials planned, he would become next in line to be president.
As Obama publicly thanked the outgoing administration for its generous help in a smooth transition, privately his advisers and Cabinet-designees sat across the table from President George W. Bush's team to evaluate the information coming from the intelligence community and what should be done about it. The president-elect could do little beyond ask questions.
In the end, the report turned out to be false: No terrorists traveled here to attack the inauguration. The story was little more than a rumor, fueled by a false report from a rival organization. An explanation from the Times:
In this case, officials familiar with the situation said, some Somali extremists knew that a rival group was traveling to the United States and planted false information about its intentions that got back to the Americans. In the end, what for 72 hours looked like a credible threat turned out to be a false alarm.