by Dan Barry and Al Baker, New York Times
Federal and local law-enforcement officials yesterday issued a warning
vague and uncorroborated threats against the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue
of Liberty as the city imposed security measures not seen since the first
months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The warning came on a day when Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld
said terrorists would inevitably get their hands on weapons of mass
destruction as a result of their relationship with people in countries like
Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and North Korea.
The police began operating checkpoints at many of the city's major
bridges and tunnels on Monday night, causing traffic backups and
resurrecting memories of a city under siege after the collapse of the World
Trade Center. Well into last night, officers were stopping any car or truck
that they deemed suspicious, while police boats patrolled the waters under
the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges and around Liberty Island. Police
officials said that these checkpoints and patrols would continue
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly referred to the information as
"general threats to New York City" and said the police "are taking all
necessary precautions and are communicating with the appropriate
law-enforcement agencies on both the state and federal levels."
When asked how people should respond to these warnings, Mr. Kelly said,
"People should take this in the sense that government is reacting to
information, doing what it thinks is prudent, and they should continue to
forward with their lives."
The announcement about unspecific threats against city landmarks follows
two similarly vague warnings from senior government officials. It comes
some in Congress are criticizing the Federal Bureau of Investigation for
what they say was a failure to pursue clues in the weeks before last
On Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney issued a general warning about
another terrorist attack "tomorrow or next week or next year," and on
Monday, the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, suggested that suicide
bombings on American soil were inevitable.
Yesterday's warning by law-enforcement officials also came as the city
was preparing for Fleet Week 2002, which begins today with the arrival of
Navy warships, Coast Guard cutters and other vessels that will ultimately
create a parade of ships up the Hudson River. Given the patriotic flavor
the maritime event, military and law-enforcement officials have been working
for months on security plans for the vessels and their 6,000 sailors.
Among the many security measures being enforced by the Coast Guard is
establishment of a 200-yard restricted zone around any United States vessel
that is moored or anchored. "The Coast Guard is at the most heightened state
it has been at since World War II," said Petty Officer Frank Bari, a Coast
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg did not issue any statement about the threats
against landmarks, and his communications office referred questions about
the matter to the Police Department. But at a news conference earlier in
day, Mr. Bloomberg was asked how the city could prepare for terrorist
threats, either day to day or during big events like Fleet Week. "The world
is a dangerous place, unfortunately," the mayor said. "I see no reason why
people shouldn't go out and enjoy Fleet Week and get around. The more people
that are out, the safer the city will be. There are always threats,
unfortunately. Fortunately, most of them are hoaxes."
Gov. George E. Pataki agreed, saying that "all types of threats" intended
to frighten and divide the country have been received since Sept. 11. "We
have to go about our lives with the same confidence and the same enjoyment
and excitement that we had on Sept. 10," he said.
The city's alert level on Monday was already Code Orange, one step down
from Code Red, the highest alert. Police officers were being reminded at
roll call to stay vigilant, while the F.B.I. prepared to warn building
owners and tenants to be on the lookout for suspicious people or activity,
an F.B.I. spokesman said.
Then came another vague threat, passed on by the F.B.I. in Washington
the F.B.I.-N.Y.P.D. Joint Terrorism Task Force: a city landmark, possibly
the Brooklyn Bridge, possibly the Statue of Liberty, was being singled out
Law-enforcement officials say that the information came during the
debriefing of an Al Qaeda detainee. But there were no specifics about the
plan no estimated time, no probable method of attack. Nor did federal
officials assess its credibility.
"The credibility of it, we don't know," a senior law-enforcement official
said. "It is unverified and we don't have a level of credibility. But it
does come from a detainee."
The vague threat is similar to other threats that have been leveled
against the city in recent months, all false alarms. But law-enforcement
officials said that the federal government was taking this one seriously,
part because in recent weeks they have detected a flurry of telephone calls
placed to the Northeast from what one official called "source countries"
the Middle East. A similar pattern of increased calls to the region
developed in the weeks before Sept. 11.
The information was maddeningly vague, leaving some officials in City
Hall muttering that it was blown out of proportion. Still, the
law-enforcement official said, the Police Department decided that it had
recourse but to increase security.
Still, this week's measures were nowhere near as drastic as those adopted
in the first weeks after the collapse of the twin towers. Tunnels and major
tourist attractions were shut down, the police stood guard at every subway
station, the National Guard patrolled Grand Central Terminal and Penn
Station, and a Coast Guard cutter remained anchored in New York Harbor.
During the evening rush yesterday, there were no police checkpoints in
evidence on the Manhattan side of the George Washington Bridge, as thousands
of pedestrians, bike riders and cars crossed it.
Alyson Nelson, 41, a psychologist in the Bronx walking across the bridge
toward her home in New Jersey, said that she had become more aware of her
surroundings and more concerned that "another horrific act might occur."
She added, "I think living in New York now, you need to have a certain
sense of denial."
Meanwhile, on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge, police officers
were everywhere on the streets, on scooters, in squad cars and even
in a helicopter hovering above a nearby park. In a half-hour period, the
police stopped two dozen vehicles. In some cases, the officers quizzed the
driver, examined the vehicle and waved it through; in other cases, they
pulled the vehicle over and inspected its interior.
Phil Schneider, who lives in a nearby apartment complex and described
himself as a World War II veteran, said that he was frustrated by the spate
of vague warnings of terrorist attacks being shared by the government, as
well as by the constant reminders to be alert.
"They say the alerts, but what does that mean?" he asked. "What am I
supposed to do? Am I supposed to go down to the courthouse and look at
everybody who goes by? When push comes to shove, you know that what the
government can do is limited."