by Evelyn Nieves with Greg Winter, the New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 1 — Gov. Gray Davis warned today that there was "credible evidence" that terrorists were plotting a rush-hour attack in the next seven days on one or more of California's most prominent bridges, including the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges.
But federal officials took pains later to play down the warning, saying it was "uncorroborated" and less credible than the information that led to the nationwide terror alert issued on Monday by Attorney General John Ashcroft. They said the information for today's warning had never been intended to be released to the public.
Mr. Davis issued his warning at a news conference in Los Angeles announcing the appointment of a new state "terrorism czar" and said he was making the information public to ensure that the public was safe.
"We've received from several different sources threats that the law enforcement community in general believes are credible that between Nov. 2 and Nov. 7 at rush hour, there will be an effort to blow up one of those bridges," he said, adding that already tight security was "being tightened even more" around the state.
Mr. Davis said he had authorized the National Guard to assign more troops, as many as it deemed necessary, to help with security.
"The best preparation is to let terrorists know `we know what you're up to, we're ready for you,' " said Mr. Davis, who emphasized that the bridges — including the Vincent Thomas Bridge at the Port of Los Angeles and the Coronado Bridge, which connects San Diego and Coronado — were safe and would remain open.
Mr. Davis's announcement seemed to catch the F.B.I., as well as several state agencies, off guard.
On Wednesday, the F.B.I. issued an alert to law enforcement agencies in seven Western states — Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Washington — warning of a possible attack on suspension bridges. An official at the F.B.I. in San Francisco said the bureau was surprised at the governor's announcement because unsubstantiated and uncorroborated alerts were sent daily to law enforcement agencies. The official said that the alert had been based on a report from a field agent and that the agency was investigating its legitimacy.
After Mr. Davis's announcement, the F.B.I. office in San Francisco issued a statement: "The F.B.I. has received no specific threat relating to a specific California bridge."
And a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Mindy Tucker, said the information that prompted today's warning was at "a lower level" than the information that led to the F.B.I.'s two nationwide alerts issued on Oct. 11 and on Monday.
Officials at both the National Guard and Caltrans, the state transportation agency, said the governor had not informed them of any specific security threat before he announced it to reporters.
Jeff Weiss, a spokesman for Caltrans, said the governor had not been in contact with his office either before or after his announcement. A spokesman for the National Guard said that while the governor announced its involvement, it had not received any marching orders.
In an interview on "Larry King Live" on CNN tonight, Governor Davis defended his earlier comments, saying: "You have to err on the side of caution. You have to do everything you can to protect people."
A federal official said the information leading to Mr. Davis's warning, which he made about 3 this afternoon, was received in the last two days from the United States Customs Service, an unusual source for such information.
Traffic will continue to flow on the bridges, according to the California Highway Patrol. No checkpoints will be erected. No searches will take place. Tourists and pedestrians will be allowed to stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge without restriction.
"We are comfortable that the bridges are safe," said Spike Helmick, commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, in a conference call with reporters. "I would encourage all the people to use the bridges."
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the Highway Patrol says it has been surveying California's bridges, state office buildings and aqueducts from the air day and night and has assigned guards to stand by the governor and other top officials in case of an assassination attempt.
On the ground, the responsibility for safeguarding the state's four major bridges will largely fall to police cruisers posted at each end like anchors, watching traffic as they have for the last several weeks.
National Guard troops are to join them this evening, providing an extra set of "eyes and ears," as Mr. Helmick described the arrangement, but will not interfere with what is an already congested daily commute.
One routine patrol by Highway Patrol officers more than a week ago led to the arrests of four men of Pakistani descent in the overlook area on the Marin County side of the Golden Gate Bridge at 1:30 a.m., a federal law enforcement official said. Three of the men were recent arrivals in the United States with improper documents and the fourth was a United States citizen, the official said.
The men, who were later released, had been videotaping the bridge and told the Highway Patrol officers that they were sightseeing, the official said. The area has recently been closed after 7 p.m.
Given the absence of any searches or security checks, Mr. Helmick would not say how the soldiers and officers would be able to stop a car or truck laden with explosives from driving onto a bridge and detonating during rush hour. Instead, he merely emphasized that Highway Patrol officers, with the backing of the National Guard, would be at the ready should anyone try an attack.
While officials for the F.B.I. cautioned that the threat was still vague, they acknowledged that it was more specific than the general warnings that had been issued to law enforcement agencies in recent weeks.
Specific locations were mentioned, though F.B.I. officials seemed particularly concerned about the San Francisco Bay area. Spanning those waters, the Bay Bridge ties Oakland to San Francisco, carrying tens of thousands of commuters every day. And, most notably, the Golden Gate Bridge, itself a major artery, is one of the most visible monuments along the West Coast, drawing thousands of visitors each year.
Elsewhere in the state, the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles crosses a patch of the city's harbor that is largely industrial, providing a conduit for commercial traffic.
In San Diego, the Coronado Bridge, known for its graceful arch, connects downtown with Coronado Island, which is home to the North Island Naval Air Station, part of the largest aerospace-industrial complex in the Navy.
Police departments in Los Angeles and San Diego said they would follow the Highway Patrol's lead, offering assistance when called upon, but otherwise not deviating significantly from their regular patrols.
Particularly in Los Angeles, the police say they gave little thought to the idea that a relatively obscure structure like the Vincent Thomas Bridge could ever be the target of a terrorist attack before Sept. 11.
After Governor Davis's warning, officials along the West Coast scrambled to announce that they had taken precautions to ensure public safety.
In Seattle, the police chief, Gil Kerlikowske, speaking at a news conference with Mayor Paul Schell, and the F.B.I. agent in charge in the city, Charles Mandigo, said there were already inspections at all bridges in the area involving SWAT teams, harbor patrol and regular officers. On Friday, Chief Kerlikowske said, there would be officers stationed on all the bridges.
In Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber said there was no credible information that the state was a target of threats, and he said the authorities were assessing security at bridges.
To officials in other populous Western states, like Colorado, the new warnings prompted the same response as previous ones.
"We've been on the same high alert since Sept. 11," said Trooper Dan Elder of the Colorado State Patrol. "We've got our eyes open, and that's about it until we get something more specific."