Qaeda Tip Spurred Alert in New York
The source of a tip this week that terrorists might strike at the Brooklyn Bridge or the Statue of Liberty was Abu Zubaydah, the highest-ranking Qaeda operative captured since Sept. 11, a senior law enforcement official said yesterday. That is one reason New York officials put the city on high alert and publicized details of the threat, something the Federal Bureau of Investigation never intended to do.
A senior law enforcement official said the threat against the New York landmarks was revealed last weekend during a debriefing of Mr. Zubaydah overseas. The information was deemed potentially credible because the military authorities had corroborated some, but not all, of the other statements he had made.
On Monday evening, after the F.B.I. informed the New York police about the vague and uncorroborated threat, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly quietly ordered the return of checkpoints at many of the city's bridges and tunnels, as well as boat patrols on some of the city's waterways. The next evening, with the heightened security evident in the city, the police disclosed the threat to the public.
But how and when the details of the threat against the landmarks should have been released has become the subject of some debate between the F.B.I. and the city police, two agencies that have worked together closely for more than 20 years, with recurring struggles.
Commissioner Kelly told reporters yesterday that it was his impression that the F.B.I. had planned to issue a public warning on Tuesday morning based on the new information. But, for reasons he could not explain, Mr. Kelly said, that did not happen. "It wasn't made public," Mr. Kelly said. "I don't know why, but I do know they confirmed it later in the day."
But Joseph A. Valiquette, a spokesman for the F.B.I.'s New York office, said last night that the bureau never planned to issue a warning on Tuesday. "Obviously there was some confusion between the two agencies about whether or not the warning was to be made public," he said. "But there was never any intention on the part of the F.B.I. to go public. The intention of the F.B.I. was to pass on to our law enforcement partners intelligence information that had been made known to us. And that is what we did."
Senior police officials said yesterday that while they could not gauge the credibility of the threat they felt that prudence required they take some action in response to the new information. But the officials said they knew that the additional security would be apparent to New Yorkers and require explanation.
When a representative of the F.B.I.-N.Y.P.D. Joint Terrorist Task Force told a top aide to Mr. Kelly of the threat in a telephone call on Monday night, he said a formal written notification would be sent Tuesday morning, one of the senior police officials said. The police also expected the F.B.I. to make an announcement about the threat in Washington on Tuesday, the police officials said.
But over the course of the day, neither the formal written notification nor the announcement came, the police officials said. Meanwhile, a news report about the threat was broadcast by the Fox News Channel, prompting other news organizations to flood City Hall with inquiries.
Ultimately, Mr. Kelly released a three-sentence statement on Tuesday evening saying that the Police Department had received information from the F.B.I. about general threats, was taking all necessary precautions and was communicating with state and federal law enforcement agencies. The F.B.I. followed suit in Washington.
Some officials continued to play down the warnings, including James Kallstrom, the former head of New York's F.B.I. office who is now an unpaid adviser to Gov. George E. Pataki on public security issues. Based on his experience, he said the information about the threat was never intended for public consumption. "This is not any particular information that is going to really change how we are going to protect things," he said.
Mr. Zubaydah's link to the threat was first reported yesterday in The Daily News. American officials said late last month that they had high hopes for leads gleaned from him. And while they said they had been able to verify some information he provided, the truthfulness of the most important claims he had made, including his assertions that Al Qaeda had been close to building a crude nuclear device and that the group might attack American banks or shopping centers, had not been confirmed.
Mr. Zubaydah, a Palestinian in his early 30's who was Osama bin Laden's chief of operations, was captured in March in Pakistan. He was the principal recruiter for Al Qaeda's terrorist camps in Afghanistan and is believed to know the identity of members hiding in so-called sleeper cells.
A senior law enforcement official said yesterday that it was not clear whether Mr. Zubaydah was cooperating with the authorities.
American officials said last month that Mr. Zubaydah was being interrogated by the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. at an undisclosed location overseas. On the basis of Mr. Zubaydah's information about the shopping centers and banks, the F.B.I. issued terrorist alerts last month. But officials say they fear that some of the captured Qaeda leader's claims are disinformation, possibly an attempt to create panic or confuse investigators.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that he believed some intelligence about terrorist plans had been deliberately planted by the nation's enemies to waste law enforcement and military resources and prompt measures terrorists could study.
But last night, Vice President Dick Cheney defended the recent alerts, including suspected attacks in New York. "We now have a large number of people in custody, detainees," Mr. Cheney said on "Larry King Live," the CNN program, "and periodically as we go through this process we learn more about the possibility of future attacks. And based on that kind of reporting, we try to be very cautious and alert people when we think there's a reason to be concerned about a particular subject or target."