TODAY   |  August 02, 2013

US to close all embassies across Middle East

The U.S. State Department has announced officials will close down all U.S. embassies across the Middle East on Sunday after Al-Qaeda-related intelligence suggested a threat. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reports.

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>> we have a great show for somebody who comes from "the voice." there's a great show. they are ready. we're going to start with a drastic move by the state department . they have ordered the shut down of multiple u.s. embassies and consulates. andrea mitchell has got the latest. good morning to you.

>> reporter: good morning. this is highly unusual. the threat is from one source officials say related to al qaeda in the middle east . mentioning a threat to diplomatic posts overseas. vague but in the aftermath of benghazi the state department is not taking any chances. announcing the closing of all u.s. embassies normally open for business on sunday in the middle east and africa, there's a security threat.

>> the department has been apprised of information out of an abundance of caution, indicates we should institute these precautionary steps.

>> reporter: u.s. officials tell nbc news the closures are in response to al qaeda intelligence specifying a period of time beginning sunday august 4th . officials say it may be tied to the end of the month long observation of ramadan.

>> ten of ramadan is a significant time. it's a time where you might see a potential for additional attacks so certainly the intelligence community and the state department are going to pay even closer attention to the threat environment.

>> reporter: of the 284 u.s. embassies and consulates worldwide the biggest posts are in tel aviv , baghdad. will the shut down extend past sunday. a state department notice said it's possible. amidst ongoing turmoil across the middle east from cairo to tahrir square to the civil war in syria and past attacks on u.s. diplomatic posts to kenya and tanzania in 1998 and beirut back in 1983 . analysts say dloegs outposts is a smart move no matter how vague the threat. officials are now working with allied spy agencies to narrow town the tar gets to avoid what could be extended to worldwide closures even if america's 284 diplomatic posts as soon as monday.

>> let's turn to michael lighter. the former director of national counterterrorism center . good morning to you.

>> good morning.

>> as andrea just mentioned this is exceedingly rare for the state department to take such a dramatic step. what's your gut?

>> my gut is that they clearly have something that's very credible, either human intelligence or signal intelligence , intercepted communications. and although they don't know exactly where it's credible or not they got to take very broad precautions and as andrea noted in light of the benghazi the state department will be extra careful and the intelligence community is very worried about any leaks that could endanger the source.

>> let me ask you to elaborate more on that. as you well know as somebody who was at the highest levels of the intelligence community threats come in all the time. there's always chatter. surely there's something over and above, an order of magnitude higher than this that would warrant a step like this.

>> that's right. we would normally see between 40 and 50 threats every day against u.s. facilities and the homeland when i was at the national counterterrorism center . it's only a very few of those that start to get more and more credible and in a case like this it is absolutely something close to one of al qaeda 's affiliates or organizations which leads them to take these steps. this isn't something that they do lyingly. this has a huge effect, it's covered by all the news, and it's really for the state department normally to keep these facilities open. so this does mean it is far more credible than most of the stuff that they see every day.

>> we've learned from the state department that these embassy, they haven't named which ones but across the near east and middle east will be closed sunday. closings could continue for days after that. as a practical matter how does this work. you can close an embassy for a day. if the threat is there and real can't you wait it out. you can't close the embassy forever.

>> that's right. they have a series of layered security measures. closing them is the most radical. they can work with the host countries to make sure there's additional police forces on site. reinforce marine guard station. make sure there's quick reaction forces in the region. but all of that is the last thing to rely on. we hope they can collect more information and ultimately disrupt any threat that might be coming from various places in the region.

>> always good to get your perspective. thank you.