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NYC officials kept mum on Grand Central threat

(The following article by Robert Polner, Rocco Parascandola and Wil Cruz was posted on the Newsday website on March 2.)

NEW YORK -- New York authorities revealed Wednesday that they had kept quiet about a chilling but crude sketch of Grand Central Terminal found during the Spanish investigation of the bombing of four Madrid train stations.

Transit advocates and commuters said they thought the city's use of discretion was warranted, given the apparent vagueness of the link uncovered by Spain.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly defended the city's response after the Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported yesterday that the rendering, which was uncovered by Spanish investigators two weeks after the March 11 terror attacks, was shared with New York officials in November.

He said at a Manhattan news conference that there was never any solid evidence of a plot to bomb Grand Central or a need to alert the public.

"We have no information to indicate that these drawings were part of an operational plan to attack Grand Central Station," Kelly said in comments that Mayor Michael Bloomberg echoed separately.

Kelly said the sketch, which he described as "amateur renderings of the interior," appeared not to have been made from actual surveillance of the train station.

"I wouldn't say this is cause for alarm," said Kelly, adding he thought it wasn't appropriate for information about the sketch to be released.

"I think commuters should go about their business. We've done a lot. We're doing a lot ... I wouldn't change my activities if I were a commuter."

Federal intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security agencies yesterday downplayed the significance of the sketches found on a laptop during the Madrid probe and cast doubt on whether they were part of an actual terrorist plan.

FBI officials who were working with Spanish authorities initially didn't know what to make of the sketch, but they eventually determined it resembled Grand Central and passed it on to New York authorities.

Lee Ann Witt, 35, a bartender, agreed with Kelly's assessment, passing through Grand Central on her way home to Bensonhurst. The station is used by 750,000 people a day.

"They probably didn't want to cause a panic," she said. "It's probably a good thing. If they let the public know, what could we do about it, anyway?"

Kelly said security arrangements at Grand Central as well as Penn Station were amended within a day of the bombings and remain in place, with no additional changes needed because of the sketch.

"For example, we learned that instead of assembling their bombs at a remote site, the Madrid bombers had brought their components to the stations and assembled them nearby," Kelly said. "We used that information to look at any suspicious activity at our railroad stations.

"It differs from other intelligence that we have received in the past. For example, the material did not include the specificity and detailed reconnaissance activity that accompanied the information on the Al-Hindi computer file concerning Citicorp and the New York Stock Exchange," Kelly added, referring to surveys by a New Jersey-based al-Qaida scout, Abu Musa al-Hindi, that led the Bush administration to declare an orange alert Aug. 1 for America's financial sector. Authorities later concluded the buldings were not under threat of imminent attack.

Neysa Pranger, coordinator for the Straphangers Campaign, a rider advocacy group, remarked, "It's wise of officials not to scare riders unnecessarily. Security in the subways is on people's minds already. The question is, would people alter their commutes in some way. I don't know that that type of new information would lead people to do that."

Thursday, March 3, 2005

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