by Manny Garcia, Peter Wallsten And Amy Driscoll, The Miami Herald
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI are investigating a possible plot to kill Gov. Jeb Bush with a truck bomb in Tallahassee, law enforcement officials confirmed Thursday.
The governor, who had been out of state on a fundraising trip, was "safe and in good spirits," FDLE officials said. He returned to Tallahassee late Thursday from a fundraising trip in Pennsylvania.
The story about the alleged plot came from a confidential informant, jailed in Broward County, who said at least four men with Arab names were trying to contract someone to drive a truckload of explosives to Tallahassee today and blow up the governor.
Agents have been uncertain how much weight to give the information; the informant has failed several lie-detector tests and may simply be trying to cut a deal with prosecutors in his own criminal case, investigators said.
But the information has also panned out at least once: On Thursday, his tip led investigators to a van in Broward County that apparently contained traces of explosives.
"Just when we're ready to discount the inmate, we get a nugget," said one agent involved in the investigation.
One sign that the threat may not be considered entirely credible: the Capitol will open as usual today, though under increased security. But in the heightened state of alert in post-Sept. 11 America, agents said, any possible attack on Bush, the president's brother, is taken seriously. The alleged plot was supposed to take place today -- Jan. 11 -- on the four-month anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks.
"We're certainly going to confirm there's been a threat," said Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Tim Moore. "But we don't know yet whether the threat is credible." The FDLE said in a press release that a letter addressed to Bush and received in the Capitol in late December triggered the investigation.
When agents learned of the possible plot, they began debriefing the informant, who told them that several Middle Eastern acquaintances planned to blow up the governor.
The investigators were skeptical. The inmate supplying the information has failed at least five lie-detector tests during the past eight to 10 days conducted by the Secret Service and the FBI. The inmate was specifically asked about the alleged plot against the governor when he failed, prompting some agents to characterize him as "51 percent pathological liar, 49 percent truthful." He has been jailed since July 2001.
And yet this apparently untrustworthy inmate was able to supply the agents with some information that checked out: the names of several Middle Easterners who were known to the FBI for their involvement with explosives in South Florida in 1993.
Acting on the information, federal and state agents several weeks ago began 24-hour surveillance of at least four South Florida men with Arab names who may be suspects in the case, an agent involved in the investigation said.
The informant also was able to supply information about the owner of a van that might be involved in the alleged plot. Agents found the van -- but not the owner -- and searched it Thursday in Broward County. They found no explosives, but bomb-sniffing dogs alerted to the presence of something suspicious.
"The bomb dogs just hit on the van," said an agent. "The dogs went crazy. The bomb dogs were all over it."
Agents arrested a man who may be the van's driver on immigration-related charges. Investigators have towed the van and are examining it for explosives.
Also on Thursday, one of the men being sought for questioning was pulled over on Interstate 95 in Broward County for an illegal lane change. Florida Highway Patrol Lt. John Bagnardi had been alerted to watch for the black Mercedes-Benz and stop it for any traffic infractions.
FDLE agents were called in, and the man was questioned. He was issued a traffic citation and allowed to leave the area, just south of the Oakland Park Boulevard exit, around 7:45 p.m., Bagnardi said.
The man's name was not released, at the urging of FDLE agents, but he has agreed to be questioned further by the FDLE. The man had a concealed-weapons permit and two guns -- a .38-caliber revolver and a semiautomatic handgun, Bagnardi said.
FDLE Special Agent Supervisor John Coffey, one of the agents that questioned the man, declined to say why they wanted to talk to him.
Some of those under surveillance are associated with local South Florida grocery stores owned by Middle Easterners, and agents said they are trying determine if they have links to Middle Eastern terrorist organizations.
The governor, who spent part of Wednesday alongside his brother, President George W. Bush, was in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh on Thursday raising money for his reelection campaign. He flew back to Tallahassee on a chartered plane late Thursday.
The governor's spokeswoman, Katie Baur, called the news "disconcerting."
"But the governor has full faith in our state's law enforcement, and he's going to let them do their job," she said. "The governor wants to reassure all Floridians that he's absolutely fine and staying focused on the job he was elected to do."
In October, Bush's office posted an armed guard outside the governor's suite in the Capitol, but the governor generally has tried to keep his security as low-key as possible.
"I'm not big on having people all around me," Bush said recently.
Miami-Dade police said they are aware of the alleged plot and have offered assistance to FDLE.
Investigators say they are still uncertain how much weight to give the inmate's information.
"He's obviously trying to help himself, get himself a better deal," said one agent. "But you cannot discount any threat, not after Sept. 11."