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New York named in terror threat against subways

(The following article by William K. Rashbaum was posted on the New York Times website on October 7.)

NEW YORK -- Security in and around New York City's subways was sharply increased yesterday after city officials said they were notified by federal authorities in Washington of a terrorist threat that for the first time specifically named the city's transit system.

The measures were announced by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, along with Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and the head of the New York F.B.I. office, Mark J. Mershon, after an American military operation with the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. in Iraq yesterday and Wednesday, according to law enforcement officials. The operation, the officials said, was aimed at disrupting the threat.

Some officials in Washington, in interviews last night, played down the nature of the threat. While not entirely dismissing it, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security described it as "specific yet noncredible," adding that the intelligence community had concluded that the information was of "doubtful credibility."

Several law enforcement officials said an investigation had yet to corroborate any of the details.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the operation in Iraq resulted in two people being taken into custody. They said a third was being sought.
Information about the threat, the officials said, came to light last weekend from an intelligence source who told federal authorities that the three men in Iraq had planned to meet with other operatives in New York.

One official said the group would number about a dozen. Another official said the total was closer to 20 people involved. The men planned to use strollers, briefcases and packages to hide a number of bombs that they planned to detonate on the subways.
"It was a conspiracy involving more than a dozen people aimed at delivering a number of devices into the subway," one of the officials said.

One official said the information suggested an attack could happen as early as today; another pointed to the middle of the month.

"This is a piece of information that came in as a result of operations that go on all the time, and to corroborate that information or not we had to go after certain people," one official said.

Mr. Mershon said: "F.B.I. agents and other U.S. government personnel continue to work around the clock to fully resolve this particular threat. Thus far, there is nothing that has surfaced in that investigation or those enforcement actions which has corroborated an actual threat to the city."

Mayor Bloomberg seemed to try to inform New Yorkers without alarming them. He said that while the threat was not corroborated, it was specific enough to warrant an immediate and overwhelming response.

"It was more specific as to target; it was more specific as to timing, and some of the sources had more information that would lead one to believe that it was not the kind of thing that appears in the intelligence community every day," Mr. Bloomberg said.

The mayor urged New Yorkers to continue riding the subways, as he said he would, but cautioned them to be watchful, saying several times, "If you see something, say something."

As he spoke, thousands of city police officers were swarming the transit system. An officer will be assigned to each subway station, and Commissioner Kelly said the Police Department is significantly stepping up uniformed and plainclothes patrols, increasing sweeps through subway cars and posting officers at each subway tunnel that passes beneath city waterways. The department's heavily armed "Hercules teams" and other specialized units will also focus on the transit system, he said.

Bag searches will also be significantly increased, the commissioner said, with a focus on briefcases, baby strollers, luggage and other packages and containers, and he asked subway riders to curtail their use. The searches will take place not only on the subways, but also on buses and ferries, and the Police Department has coordinated the increased scrutiny with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New Jersey Transit, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Amtrak.

Mr. Kelly used narcotics detectives from Brooklyn and Queens and other investigators from the department's Warrant Division to increase security in the subways. Officers mobilized at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Mershon would not discuss the events in Iraq, or where they had occurred, saying that it was classified.

Counterterrorism officials in Washington said the information received this week was highly specific, including details about the possible use of suitcase bombs and explosives hidden in strollers. That information, along with the more general concern that terrorists might stage an attack modeled on the July bombings in London, prompted immediate concern, the officials said.

On an average weekday, an estimated 4.7 million rides are taken on New York's subway system, which has 468 stations.

Russ Knocke, a spokesman for Homeland Security, said the credibility of the threat was still to be determined.

He said Homeland Security "received intelligence information regarding a specific but noncredible threat to the New York City subway system."

Mr. Knocke said Homeland Security shared the information "early on with state and local authorities in New York," adding, "There are no plans to alter the national threat level or the threat level in New York City."

He would not say any more about the content of the threat or the origin of the information.

Paul J. Browne, the Police Department's deputy commissioner of public information, would not discuss whether the source information suggested that operatives were in New York. He would only say, "We're looking at all aspects of this case."

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, city and national law enforcement authorities have at times reacted differently to similar threat information. In part, this is because of the varying roles that different agencies play. The New York Police Department, for example, is responsible for protecting the city and its subways and therefore is more likely to act quickly. The F.B.I.'s prime antiterrorism mission, on the other hand, is thwarting plots and apprehending any suspected terrorists - a task that is almost always complicated by information becoming public. But yesterday, city and F.B.I. officials in New York stood side by side and seemed to present a similar message. Officials from Homeland Security did not take part in the briefing.

Of the information from Iraq, one official said: "Suffice it to say it was credible enough for us to be working it very hard and very diligently literally around the clock and around the world. Sometimes it looks incredibly detailed, and then it washes out into nothing, and sometimes pretty vague in nature and it turns into something real. You can't know until you go through the process, and we're going through the process."

William A. Morange, the transportation authority's security director, who is a member of a citywide counterterrorism task force, was informed several days ago about the threat, said Tom Kelly, a spokesman.

"We were kept well apprised of all the developments since earlier this week," Mr. Kelly said.

The Police Department also put into effect a broad range of measures aimed at stepping up security around the city that did not address the specific threat, but were aimed at tightening the city's security cordon. They included increased truck searches on East River crossings and banning trucks from the Brooklyn Bridge.

The department will also increase the use of radiation detectors, and detectives from the department's Intelligence Division will check parking lots and garages in Manhattan and in other areas of the city.

Reporting for this article was contributed by David Johnston, Eric Lipton and Eric Lichtblau, in Washington, and Sewell Chan and Kareem Fahim, in New York.

Friday, October 7, 2005

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