Friday, October 07, 2005
NEW YORK The investigation into the terrorist threat to bomb city subways moved forward on several fronts Friday as a suspect was arrested in Iraq and authorities looked into whether another had traveled to New York as part of the plot, officials said.
A law-enforcement official familiar with the case said the man's trip to New York was described by an informant who had spent time in Afghanistan and proved reliable in past investigations.
"He's been a source of multiple correct information in the past," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. "Does that mean a fourth person he identified is in fact in New York? We don't know that." The official added that authorities had not confirmed whether the fourth man even exists.
Alarmed by the informant's report of a plot to attack city subways with as many as 19 bombs in bags and possibly baby strollers, U.S. forces in Iraq arrested two suspected plotters who had been under close surveillance until Thursday morning, officials said. The third escaped until his arrest Friday.
With the men in custody, city officials deployed thousands of additional uniformed and plainclothes officers throughout the subway system, and publicly warned New Yorkers to keep their eyes open for possible threats.
The announcement sparked behind-the-scenes jostling with security officials in Washington, who downplayed the threat and suggested that Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have overreacted.
Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly vigorously defended their reaction Friday.
"We did exactly the right thing," Kelly said.
Those arrested had received explosives training in Afghanistan, a law-enforcement official said Friday. They had planned to travel through Syria to New York, and then meet with an unspecified number of operatives to carry out the bombings. The official said the threat was "specific to place," and that the window for the attack was anywhere from Friday through at least the weekend.
A federal official said one of the suspects arrested in Iraq apparently told interrogators that more than a dozen people were involved in the plot, and that they were of various nationalities, including Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, the official said.
"There could be one or many," the official said, who had been briefed on the case and spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. "We just don't know. There may not be any."
Kelly, Bloomberg and other city officials declined to release details of the alleged plot, saying much of the information was classified.
Bloomberg called the plot report the most specific terrorist threat that New York officials had received to date and said it was essential that authorities err on the side of caution when protecting the city of 8 million people.
"If I'm going to make a mistake you can rest assured it is on the side of being cautious," Bloomberg said at a news conference, flanked by Kelly.
A law-enforcement official said the informant had failed parts of a polygraph test but appeared to be telling the truth in response to questions dealing with the alleged plot.
But Homeland Security officials in Washington said the threat is of "doubtful credibility."
President Bush said Friday that New York City officials exercised their own prerogative in publicizing the threat. Asked if he thought New York officials had overreacted, Bush said: "I think they took the information we gave and made the judgments they thought were necessary."
Near the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Friday, more officers were visible on the streets, and one lane of traffic on Ninth Avenue was reserved for emergency vehicles.
"Hopefully, God's with me and I'll be OK," Vinnie Stella said earlier while clutching newspapers under his arm as he entered the subway at Penn Station.
Rob Johnson, 30, said he wasn't worried. "The cops have it under control."
In Baghdad, spokespersons for the U.S. military and the U.S. Embassy declined to comment about the arrests.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the military obtained intelligence information "during the normal course of our operations." The intelligence led to a military raid in Iraq this week that was conducted by Iraqi security forces, backed by U.S. troops, Whitman said, but added that there was no direct link between the raid and the New York subway threat.
An estimated 4.5 million passengers ride the New York subway on an average weekday. The system has more than 468 subway stations. In July, the city began random subway searches in the wake of the train bombings in London.
Gov. George Pataki said Thursday the state would call up hundreds of National Guard troops and ask Connecticut and New Jersey to patrol commuter trains.