Knight Ridder Washington
FBI searches for six men who had nuclear, pipeline information
By Martin Merzer, Lenny Savino and Sumana Chatterjee
Tuesday, October 30, 2001
Knight Ridder Newspapers
WASHINGTON - As the nation again stands on high alert, the FBI is searching for six men stopped by police in the Midwest last weekend but released - even though they possessed photographs and descriptions of a nuclear power plant in Florida and the Trans-Alaska pipeline, a senior law enforcement official said Tuesday.
The Federal Aviation Administration imposed new flight restrictions around nuclear plants nationwide Tuesday, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission advised the nation's 103 nuclear plants late Monday to fortify security.
The FAA temporarily banned all flights near New York's Yankee Stadium, where President Bush stood before a huge crowd at a World Series game Tuesday night and - wearing a New York City Fire Department jacket - tossed the ceremonial first pitch.
"It helps to keep the fabric of our country strong," said spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Meanwhile, an administration official said the urgent terrorism alert sounded Monday evening by Attorney General John Ashcroft was based largely on a message transmitted Sunday night by an Osama bin Laden supporter in Canada to Afghanistan.
That message referred to a major event that was going to take place "down south" this week, the official said.
Knight Ridder reported Monday that American officials feared that members of bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network had been unleashed to launch attacks without specific permission from their superiors.
On Tuesday, agency spokesmen said the FAA's flight restrictions and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's security recommendations were based on Ashcroft's general alert rather than a specific threat. Ashcroft warned that Americans at home or abroad could be struck by another terrorist attack this week.
The incident in the Midwest apparently contributed to the new terror warning. The six men stopped by police were traveling in groups of three in two white sedans, said the senior law enforcement official, who requested anonymity.
In addition to the photographs and other suspicious material, they carried "box cutters and other equipment," the official said. They appeared to be from the Middle East and held Israeli passports.
They were let go after the Immigration and Naturalization Service determined the passports were valid and that the men had entered the United States legally, the official said.
A spokesman for the INS called the report unfounded. "We have absolutely no information at this point in time to substantiate that story," said INS spokesman Russ Bergeron.
It could not be learned in what state the six men were stopped or how they aroused suspicion. It was not known if their true identities matched those on the passports, or why the FBI was not releasing their names or descriptions.
Investigators think the men almost certainly have changed cars by now and have fled to Canada or elsewhere.
Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller were "furious" that the INS allowed the men to be released without holding them at least until the FBI could be consulted, the official said.
Ashcroft and Mueller appeared Monday evening at a hastily called news conference to announce that the government had "credible" but vague information that another wave of terrorist attacks could strike Americans within a week.
Shortly after the announcement, Vice President Dick Cheney moved once again to an undisclosed, secure location and remained there Tuesday.
There are three nuclear power facilities in Florida: Florida Power & Light Co.'s Turkey Point facility, south of Miami, and St. Lucie facility, near Fort Pierce, and Florida Power Corp.'s Crystal River plant, about 85 miles north of St. Petersburg.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a new threat advisory Monday night to all nuclear power plants, other electrical plants, a dozen decommissioned reactors and three nuclear fuel-manufacturing facilities, said spokesman Victor Dricks.
The action was in response to the FBI's general warning, he said, and the commission was "not aware of any specific threats" against any power plant.
The advisory suggested the plants fortify perimeter security and, if necessary, call in help from local or state law officers or the local National Guard.
At least one Florida plant was doing that Tuesday. At Crystal River, workers installed concrete road barricades at strategic spots inside the sprawling site, which includes one nuclear reactor and four fossil-fuel plants. Citrus County sheriff's deputies were summoned to supplement the plant's full-time security force, said Florida Power spokesman Mac Harris.
Florida Power & Light, which runs the two other nuclear plants in Florida, has adopted a corporate policy not to discuss security measures or threats in detail.
Spokeswoman Rachel Scott said FPL's plants remained at the highest level of alert. "We are in very close communication with all levels of law enforcement, including the FBI, to ensure we have the security measures in place to protect the plants," she said.
Also Tuesday, the FAA restricted all flights below 18,000 feet and within 10 miles of 86 "sensitive nuclear sites" until Nov. 6, the agency said. Exceptions can be made for law enforcement, medical and firefighting flights.
The 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which delivers 17 percent of the nation's domestic oil production, runs from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to Valdez on the Pacific.
Tim Wolston, a spokesman for Alayeska, the company that runs the pipeline, said it had not received any information about the Midwest incident but it has enhanced security in recent weeks.
Still, the incident apparently contributed to the many pieces of information that triggered the FBI's general alert.
A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the agency's warning was based on messages from known or suspected operatives of bin Laden in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Jakarta, Indonesia, Afghanistan and elsewhere during the last week, coupled with a new message Sunday that suggested an attack within the next week.
However, the official said the sudden flood of messages could be "deliberate deception of the kind we saw before September 11," when bin Laden associates sent a flurry of messages suggesting a forthcoming attack on U.S. interests in Europe or the Middle East. Those messages held no hint of the U.S. hijackings to come.
Bin Laden is suspected of orchestrating the attacks on the four jetliners, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 5,000 people.
On Capitol Hill, some senators criticized the White House warning as alarmist.
"We all know that there could be another terrorist threat, and we know it could be imminent," Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J.
Others said the president was doing the best he could under the circumstances.
"I give him the benefit of the doubt," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge defended the administration's decision to issue the alert, and said it was unavoidably imprecise.
"If we had specific information about the type of weapon or a specific location, this would have certainly been shared with the local or state officials," Ridge said. "Unfortunately, we view the information as credible, but not specific."
He said it was a "convergence of credible sources that occasioned the alert. More than the usual, is all I can tell you."
In a related development, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta conceded that many problems remain with airport security procedures.
Last week, security screeners in New Orleans failed to challenge a passenger who carried a handgun in his carry-on baggage.
Mineta said special agents from the FAA and other agencies would inspect screening procedures, and he warned that more flights and passengers might be delayed during the process.
Ridge urged Americans to find new reservoirs of patience and to remain alert, but also to find a way to proceed with life as normally as possible. He noted that Bush was keeping his commitment to attend the World Series game.
"America has to continue to be America," Ridge said.
"What terrorists try to do is instill such uncertainty, such fear, such hesitation, that you don't do things that you normally do. And all we're saying with a general alert is to continue to live your lives, continue to be America, but be aware, be alert, be on guard."
Newspapers correspondents Jackie Koszczuk and Mark Fazlollah in
Washington, and Alfonso Chardy and Curtis Morgan in Miami.)