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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Davis Defends Warning of Bridge Attack

Security: Governor is unapologetic about his decision to reveal potential threat. President, public appear to be on his side.

November 03, 2001|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Gray Davis said his first reaction was that he had no choice: Bulletins issued by the FBI and two other federal agencies warned of possible terrorist attacks on the West Coast, and, more specifically, against bridges.

"My first impression was, 'My God, this is going to happen [Friday]--at rush hour,' " Davis said, recounting the briefing he received from top aides Thursday morning.

With that, he opted to issue an extraordinary public warning about the potential attacks. Other public officials, including Western governors privy to the intelligence data, did not release it, and several law enforcement authorities were taken aback by his decision.

On Friday, even as traffic moved across bridges without incident, Davis was unapologetic about his decision, while President Bush defended the governor's right to speak out and initial public reaction appeared to be on Davis' side.

"As a former governor," Bush told reporters in Washington, "I didn't particularly care when the federal government tried to tell me how to do my business. When I was a governor of Texas, I was elected by the people of Texas and I handled my state's business the way I thought was necessary. And I think any governor should be able to conduct their business the way they see fit."

Davis' decision to make public the threat--and criticism he received from some law enforcement officials for doing so--raises anew the question of how officials should act in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Davis describes the predicament as "uncharted territory."

"There is no playbook," he said Friday.

"I made the call I know was right," he added. "God forbid that something would happen."

If he had had the information and hadn't released it, he said, "I couldn't live with myself."

However, one Republican candidate for governor criticized Davis as going too far. Citing what he described as the governor's "low credibility" with Californians, GOP rival Bill Simon Jr. called on Davis "to disclose this information that he relied upon in making the statements that he did."

"When you come out and make a blanket statement that the bridges might be attacked," Simon added, "I think that sends a certain level of panic and fear in people. And I think if he did indeed have a basis for which to make the statement, I'd like to know what the basis is."

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a presumed candidate for governor, had no comment.

Secretary of State Bill Jones, another GOP candidate for governor, said Davis should be careful about releasing such information.

"Make sure that decisions are made off data that has been analyzed by the FBI, CIA and reputable sources," Jones said. "That's important because, I gather, there are huge amounts of different reports coming in, some probably more reputable than others."

Sean Walsh, one of Jones' campaign aides, was more direct: "This comes very close to crying fire in a crowded theater. The irony is he is having an economic summit [Friday], and I wonder what damage he has done to the state's economy by making this announcement without having any of the facts verified."

Indeed, at the economic summit Davis convened at Disney Studios in Burbank on Friday, much of the focus was on ways to jump-start the state's tourism industry. As the discussion progressed, a banker questioned the wisdom of assuring tourists that California is a safe place to visit while also warning of possible terrorist attacks.

"You can't say, 'We're expecting another terrorist attack,' and then say, 'Come to California,' " said Kaoru Hayama, chairman of Union Bank of California.

Still, in Davis' view and that of his top aides, the governor had little choice.

The first bulletins detailing the uncorroborated threats arrived at the state Office of Emergency Services at about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. At the time, Davis was in the air, returning from a four-day trip to the East Coast, where he had met with federal authorities in Washington, visited ground zero in New York and held political fund-raisers.

State emergency officials relayed the information to Vincent Harris, one of the governor's top aides, who in turn briefed Chief of Staff Lynn Schenk and senior advisor Michael Bustamante.

The intelligence was raw. But there were bulletins from the FBI, the U.S. Customs Service and a third agency. One aide to Davis said the third agency was the U.S. Coast Guard, although a Coast Guard spokesman declined to discuss whether the Guard had issued such a warning.

Davis aides would not release the full text of the bulletins on which the governor based his decision. However, portions of the memos were obtained.

One said in part: "Reliable information has been received indicating that terrorists are planning an attack on bridges on the West Coast, beginning Friday, 11-2, 2001, during rush hours."

A second bulletin said: "US Customs informant indicates six terrorist incidents will occur on the West Coast beginning on Nov. 2."

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