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New York Mayor Defends Telling the Public About Subway Threat

Some residents question why local and federal officials differ over what was called an 'imminent' plot against the city's transit system.

October 08, 2005|Josh Getlin and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — As New Yorkers coped Friday with a new and specific terror threat against the city's subway system, they also wrestled with a troubling question: Why did federal officials continue to downplay the seriousness of the threat that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said required a major increase in subway security?

Less than 24 hours after Bloomberg made a dramatic, late-afternoon announcement about an "imminent" subway bombing plot, the nation's largest transit system was operating smoothly, New York City officials said. Police, many in riot gear, were deployed in greater numbers than usual at many of the city's 468 stations.

There was a brief morning scare at Pennsylvania Station, where police evacuated the Amtrak waiting area and removed a soda can that was bubbling over with a suspicious green substance; it was later determined to be a prank, officials said.

Although details of the subway threat were still sketchy, Defense Department officials revealed that the plot, which purportedly involved placing bombs in baby carriages and other containers, had originally come to light from military sources in Iraq.

Based on that information -- later given to federal and New York officials -- military officers conducted a raid this week in Iraq designed to disrupt the plot, according to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, a Pentagon spokesman. Federal officials refused to say how many individuals were arrested, saying the operation was classified.

Associated Press reported that U.S. forces in Iraq had arrested three suspects in the plot who reportedly had gone through explosives training in Afghanistan.

Bloomberg said the city acted responsibly based on what was known. Asked about the differing assessments at a news conference Friday afternoon, he said: "It's very different being an analyst in Washington as opposed to being here in New York, where you have a responsibility to protect lives."

He revealed that the city had learned of the potential threat several days ago. But officials did not say anything publicly in an effort to avoid jeopardizing the lives of American military personnel who were carrying out the raid near Baghdad. Once the military operation was complete, the public was notified, the mayor said.

Bloomberg said that if he had to make a mistake, he would always err on the side of caution. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who appeared with Bloomberg, was even more emphatic about the threat and the city's response. "We did exactly the right thing," he said, referring to the increase in police patrols of the vast subway system.

In Washington, officials said they supported New York City's right to issue a public warning. But they also continued to downplay the seriousness of the terror threat. Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan, echoing statements made earlier by the Department of Homeland Security, said the report was not yet found to be credible.

President Bush, asked if New York officials had overreacted by announcing the threat, said: "I think they took the information that we gave and made the judgments they thought were necessary." He added that "the level of cooperation between the federal government and the local government is getting better and better, and part of that ... is the ability to pass information on. We did, and they responded."

In another twist, some federal law enforcement officials in Washington said the Department of Homeland Security had essentially created an unwarranted panic on New York subways. They said the information that led to the elevated alert was not only uncorroborated and not credible, but also released without authorization.

"DHS took information learned from an ongoing military operation and presented it without clearance, and without understanding the complexities of what it was all about," said a senior federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "You have to properly vet it first. But in their zeal, in their mantra of protecting America, they just put it out there, and it was irresponsible."

The official said the alleged plotters talked about going to New York to launch an attack, but authorities questioned whether they had the means or ability to do so.

A Department of Homeland Security official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that it was the New York Police Department that acted on the information that came in from overseas, not Homeland Security agents.

"I haven't found any evidence that we were involved. NYPD was acting on their own," the official said.

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