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Hoax Probable in New York Subway Threat

An Iraqi tipster 'made something up that he thought we wanted to hear,' a U.S. official says.

October 12, 2005|Josh Meyer, Josh Getlin and Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The information from an Iraqi tipster that prompted New York City to go on high alert for a possible terrorist bombing of its subway system was not true -- and was probably a hoax, federal officials said Tuesday.

Several law enforcement sources said the informant came to U.S. officials with a detailed story about a terrorist plot involving men who would travel from Iraq to Syria and to New York, where they would detonate bombs in the subway, using strollers and other devices to hide them.

His information, which triggered a near lockdown of the subways last week, also prompted a U.S. military operation in Iraq that led to the arrests of three suspected co-conspirators in Musayyib, south of Baghdad.

But after interrogating the three men and the tipster, federal authorities concluded that they were not involved in any plot to launch terrorist attacks in the U.S.

"It all appears to be falling apart," said one federal law enforcement official, in reference to the informant, whom U.S. authorities have not identified publicly. "The guy ... made something up that he thought we wanted to hear."

The FBI and other U.S. officials are trying to determine whether the informant intentionally misled them or if he was acting in good faith but on bad information, perhaps for payment or favored treatment.

"We don't know. All the facts aren't in yet," said a senior FBI official.

The two federal law enforcement officials said that since being questioned, the man was released by authorities in Iraq and has not been asked where he got the information -- or whether he made it up. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to speak about the controversy.

Last week, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg went public with the threat, ordering a massive deployment of police officers in and around the subway system. On Monday, he said that based on information he would not disclose, he was ordering security to be gradually lowered to normal.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg defended his decision to alert the public and to mount an aggressive police response, saying at a news conference that he had not seen any evidence that the threat was a hoax.

Even if the information was faulty, he said, the city acted properly in alerting the public and by increasing mass transit security.

"In intelligence there will always be conflicting analyses and conflicting data points," Bloomberg said. "What we can't have in this city is a conflict over how we respond."

Spokesmen for the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI were more guarded in their defense of the public alert, which garnered worldwide attention because of the deadly terrorist bombings of mass transit in Madrid and, more recently, London.

Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said that "the intelligence community has not found any information to substantiate the threat." John Miller, the FBI's assistant director of public affairs, had no comment on whether the FBI had officially concluded that the informant's information was false.

"We're taking part with the larger intelligence community in assessing the information and the source reporting," Miller said. "Beyond that, we're not going to comment on it, except to say that in the post-9/11 world, we don't have the luxury of going through a long vetting process if the information is specific and comes from a known source.

"That's the kind of information that has to be passed on to the locality because they have the most important vote in determining what kind of protective measures to take."

Privately, however, some federal authorities criticized the Department of Homeland Security for its handling of the matter.

The federal law enforcement official said that the informant had provided some useful information to the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Army in the past and was deemed at least somewhat trustworthy.

But in this case -- from the outset -- the informant could not answer even the most basic questions about the plot, including how the would-be bombers planned to travel to New York, the official said.

"He weaved this story that sounded great, but it lacked any specific details," the official said.

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security sent the information to local officials in New York, as they are supposed to do, while authorities in Iraq raced to corroborate the allegations. The alert was described as being uncorroborated and lacking in credibility, officials said.

But before the story could be checked out, Department of Homeland Security officials alerted state security directors in a conference call, according to the second federal law enforcement official, who described the call as being unnecessary.

That call and other efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to spread the news of the threat allowed it to leak out to the news media, thus forcing New York's hand in going public, the two federal officials said.

"The process for sharing this type of specific threat information with state and locals was consistent with protocols for how we share the information and for how that information is vetted by the intelligence community," said Knocke, the Homeland Security spokesman, adding that there was never a question of keeping the information from New York officials.

"Any time there's specific information on a threat, we pass that on," he said. But, he added, "intelligence is never perfect. The mayor has to make his own judgments, and we thought he made the right judgment."

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