August 13, 2005

Officials back off on L.A. terrorism warning
FBI rethinks intelligence that led police to check large vehicles as anniversary of 9-11 approaches.

By Toby Eckert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Los Angeles police this week stepped up random checks of large vehicles in response to a warning that terrorists may try to carry out attacks using fuel trucks around the fourth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks.

Officials in Washington played down the warning Friday, casting doubt on its reliability.

The alert, which also included New York and Chicago, came from the FBI's Los Angeles terrorism task force, based on information from FBI counterterrorism analysts.

But the agency and the Department of Homeland Security said Friday it was based on apparently flimsy intelligence.

"The information released is uncorroborated at this time and the source is of questionable reliability," a representative for the Homeland Security Department said.

FBI spokesman Steve Kodak added, "It was single-source information. Now the agency we got it from has even discounted it."

The initial warning said that al-Qaida operatives planned to use various kinds of fuel or oxygen trucks as improvised explosives in attacks some time before Sept. 19. Government officials and terrorism experts have warned that extremists might use other modes of transportation for attacks given the increase in aviation security in the past four years.

Worries about fresh attacks usually accompany the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Concerns were heightened further after the subway and bus bombings in London last month.

"Our counterterrorism and criminal intelligence bureau routinely looks at any reports of stolen or missing trucks that carry anything hazardous," Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton said in a statement read by a representative. "The Los Angeles Police Department's traffic coordination section has stepped up random checks of large vehicles."

The warning illustrates the nebulous nature of much of the intelligence that officials have to analyze to determine whether an attack may be imminent.

"This stream of reporting is similar to others we've had since 9-11," Bratton said in his statement.

In a related development, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would lower the terrorist alert level for mass transit to yellow ("elevated") from orange ("high"), at the conclusion of Friday's rush hour. It was raised July 7, the day suicide bombers struck the London subway system and a bus.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the decision to lower the level was made in light of "sustainable mass transit security measures tailored to the unique design of each region's transit system" implemented since the London attacks.

"Many transit systems, particularly the larger systems, will maintain a strengthened baseline level of preparedness beyond what existed before the London attacks, including a number of the security enhancements that were put into place for the July alert," Chertoff said in a written statement. "Additionally, individual transit systems should vary these security measures at any given time in order to make it more difficult to predict the security regime at any given location."

He did not elaborate on what extra security measures have been undertaken. Many terrorism experts say the federal government has invested far too little in rail and bus security since 2001, creating vulnerabilities that terrorists could exploit.