Washington, Dec. 30: Amid heightened indications that al Qaida operatives may be planning catastrophic attacks in the US, the FBI is warning police about a new potential tool for terrorism: almanacs.
An FBI intelligence bulletin sent to law enforcement agencies last week warned that “terrorist operatives may rely on almanacs to assist with target selection and pre-operational planning” because they include detailed information on bridges, tunnels and other US landmarks, officials said.
Although noting that “the use of almanacs or maps may be the product of legitimate recreational or commercial activities,” the bulletin urged police to watch for suspects carrying almanacs, especially if they include suspicious notations or marks, because “the practice of researching potential targets is consistent with known methods of al Qaida and other terrorist organisations.”
The warning came as a surprise to purveyors of almanacs, which range from statistical tomes listing the tallest buildings and the longest bridges to folksy journals including planetary charts and apple-pie recipes.
“Our almanac is about as far away as you can get from terrorism and about as close as you can get to what you would think of as Americana,” said Peter Geiger, editor of the Farmers’ Almanac, a 185-year-old compendium of weather predictions, cleaning tips and other advice. “It takes people away from all the hype and terrorism and scaring that’s going on.”
The bulletin also prompted objections from civil liberties advocates, who argued that the warning appears to encourage police to arrest or interrogate people based on their reading habits.
“Founding father Benjamin Franklin probably never imagined that the almanac he created would be the subject of an FBI terrorism bulletin,” said Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Franklin certainly foresaw the danger of government overreaching during a time of crisis. We hope that both the almanac and the Constitution will survive intact.”
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said the bulletin “is criminalising the use of the most basic reference resources, which people have a legitimate reason to have. This is the kind of thing that leads to profiling.”
The almanac alert was part of the FBI’s regular Intelligence Bulletin distributed weekly to law enforcement agencies nationwide.
Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, the bulletin has often included general warnings and information related to terrorism. The bureau has been criticised at times for its choice of topics, including a recent bulletin outlining the possible dangers posed by violent anti-war protesters.
FBI spokesperson Ed Cogswell said the bulletin was meant to provide general information to local police and was not the result of a specific threat. It does not refer to any specific cases involving almanacs.
But during a search of the apartment of alleged al Qaida sleeper agent Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, investigators have said they found an almanac with bookmarked pages on major US dams, rivers, reservoirs and railroads.
US flight restrictions
The skies above New Year’s Eve revellers in New York and some other US cities will be off-limits to certain aircraft and patrolled by warplanes as part of a heightened watch for terror attacks, the department of homeland security said today.
The government has approved temporary flight restrictions, or TFRs, over the strip in Las Vegas, New York City’s Times Square and downtown Chicago, a department spokeswoman said.
The restrictions will apply to chartered flights and smaller leisure aircraft, but not to commercial and military flights, Sunbarger said.
Following the US move, Italian authorities today said that the skies over Rome will be off-limits to certain aircraft as part of a heightened watch for terror attacks over the New Year holiday.