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Canadian 'plot' sparked high alert

January 05, 2010

Mitch Potter


The Secret Service was on alert for alleged Somali extremists from Canada. (Jan. 20, 2009)


WASHINGTON–The storybook inauguration of Barack Obama played out with Washington on high alert for a major terror plot from Canada, security officials on both sides of the border have confirmed.

The plot, later revealed as a false alarm, forced the incoming president's transition team to brace for the threat that Somali extremists coming from Canada would attempt an attack as an estimated one million people gathered in Washington to witness Obama's swearing-in.

The tension-fraught episode, revealed Monday in a New York Times article headlined "Inside Obama's war on terrorism," gripped Obama and his closest advisers for 72 hours leading up to the Jan. 20, 2009 inauguration as U.S. intelligence agencies scrambled to pinpoint the threat.

It also brought together top officials from the outgoing George W. Bush administration and Obama's new team in a critical strategy session in the White House Situation Room, where debate included the question of what to do should a bomb explode on Washington's National Mall during the globally televised ceremony.

"Is the Secret Service going to whisk (Obama) off the podium so the American people see their incoming president disappear in the middle of the inaugural address," Hillary Clinton, now secretary of state, demanded of her predecessors, including Condoleezza Rice, according to the Times.

Clinton answered the question herself, saying: "I don't think so."

It was only after the inauguration that U.S. intelligence officials were able to dismiss the threat as an act of "poison pen" – the deliberate planting of false information by one band of Somali extremists in order to draw the full brunt of American security attention against a rival group.

A White House aide verified the accuracy of the Times report in an interview with the Star but refused to elaborate.

The RCMP confirmed its National Security Criminal Investigations unit "worked closely with U.S. counterparts to investigate what initially appeared to be a credible threat. Subsequently, it was determined not to be credible," the Mounties said in a statement Tuesday.

"The situation highlights on of the challenges faced by the RCMP National Security Program: significant resources must be committed whenever a threat to national security is reported, even when the threat is later determined to be false."

Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan, in a statement to the Toronto Star, said that "While we generally do not discuss particular investigations, we do work very closely with international partners, including the U.S., on counterterrorism matters.

"It is our experience that the Obama administration remains concerned about, and focused on, national security threats. It is in Canada's interest to work closely with our partners on security threats, as we share the same threats and face the same concerns," the statement said.

A Canadian government source also confirmed that Ottawa was in the loop on what proved to be a false terror scare – but the Canadian source described the incident in more benign terms, framing it not as extremist-vs.-extremist but rather as part of a long-standing rivalry between members of different Somali clans.

In either context, there is no doubt the episode transfixed Obama's inner circle. John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism official, told the Times: "It was a poignant reminder of the seriousness of the issue the president would be facing, on the eve of the inauguration."

The Times report seized on the perceived threat from Canada as a litmus test for the fledgling Team Obama, quoting senior White House adviser David Axelrod on how Obama himself for the first time felt the full weight of high office.

"(Obama) seemed more subdued than he had been," Axelrod told the Times. "It's not as if you don't know what you're getting into. But when the reality comes and the baton is being passed and you're now dealing with real terrorism threats, it's a very sobering moment."

As 2009 unfolded, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, made headlines for repeatedly alluding to terror threats – those known to the public and others known only to security agencies – emanating from Canada as the prime impetus for tougher border rules.

In June, Clinton backed Napolitano's assessment, telling the Star: "Unfortunately, given the security environment that we have to deal with today, we have been focused on making sure our northern border was as secure as possible without undermining either our relationship or the trade in goods and services, the tourism, the natural flow of people who both work and go to school and recreate on both sides of the border."

But there was no indication Monday that the Obama administration's aggressive stance on border security was conditioned by the inauguration scare. Instead, White House officials directed the Star's queries to the U.S. National Security Council. NSC officials did not return the newspaper's calls.