Security Tighter in New York After Vague Terrorist Threat
Federal and local law-enforcement officials yesterday issued a warning of 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 indefinitely.
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 go forward with their lives."
The announcement about unspecific threats against city landmarks follows two similarly vague warnings from senior government officials. It comes when 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 September's attacks.
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 21 Navy warships, Coast Guard cutters and other vessels that will ultimately create a parade of ships up the Hudson River. Given the patriotic flavor of 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 the 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 Guard spokesman.
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 the 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 to 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 for attack.
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, in part because in recent weeks they have detected a flurry of telephone calls placed to the Northeast from what one official called "source countries" in 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 no 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."