FBI concludes threat to bridges wasn't credible

Wednesday, November 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The FBI said a warning that terrorists might attack bridges on the West Coast was based on intelligence that was not credible, but law enforcement agencies were advised to remain on high alert against possible terrorist activities.

Meanwhile, the assault on terrorists' money sources made progress as U.S. and foreign officials zeroed in on a handful of suspected financiers of terrorist activities, officials said.

President Bush planned to announce Wednesday the freezing of additional assets and some law enforcement activities on that front, the officials said, declining to be more specific.

Two of them said moves would be made to freeze the assets of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network from banks in Switzerland, Italy, Liechtenstein and the Bahamas. Italian police conducted searches of the homes Wednesday of two men identified by the Italian news agency as being targeted by the U.S. effort.

U.S. authorities have been closely examining Islamic money exchanges, known as hawalas, in the United States and abroad for possible transfers involving Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. German authorities say some of the transfers aiding terrorists appear to have involved outlets in the United States.

The FBI received uncorroborated intelligence last week suggesting terrorists might strike suspension bridges on the West Coast between last Friday and Wednesday and issued a private warning to law enforcement in eight states. The warning also went to many companies in the region through the FBI's Infragard network that alerts industry to threats.

California Gov. Gray Davis then took the information public the next day, suggesting federal officials had ``credible evidence'' of a possible terror attack on four bridges in his state.

National Guard troops took up positions on the bridges, and transportation officials beefed up security from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the Holland Tunnel in New York.

But agents who looked further into the raw intelligence found no evidence to corroborate the threat, officials said. They issued an updated message to police nationwide on Tuesday.

``Recipients should be advised that FBI investigation has determined that the threat to suspension bridges is not deemed credible,'' the message said.

Davis defended his actions. ``My No. 1 job is to keep Californians safe,'' he said Tuesday. ``I believe I took the correct steps.

``I'm going to err on the side of caution,'' Davis said. ``I'm going to keep the National Guard and the California Highway Patrol on those bridges for the foreseeable future.''

Meanwhile, a top FBI official acknowledged agents still have few clues in the investigation into anthrax attacks that have left four dead and sickened 13 more Americans.

FBI counterterrorism official James Caruso told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing federal law enforcement officials still don't know the number of U.S. labs that handle anthrax or other biological agents.

``We do not know that,'' Caruso said. ``We are pressing hard to determine. I know it's an unsatisfactory answer and unsatisfactory to us as well.''

In Nevada, a federal judge on Tuesday ordered a U.S. Consulate employee from Saudi Arabia sent to New Jersey to face charges he accepted bribes to grant visas to foreigners entering the United States.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Howard Zlotnick told U.S. Magistrate Robert Johnston that the FBI has tape-recorded and videotaped evidence that the consulate employee, Abdulla Noman, arranged the sale of visas to people entering the United States from Saudi Arabia.

He said the Yemeni citizen needed to be held until authorities learn more about how several Saudi citizens involved in the Sept. 11 hijackings obtained their visas.

``He was the go-to man for people getting false visas in Saudi Arabia,'' Zlotnick said. ``It's no secret that the individuals on Sept. 11th came from Saudi Arabia with visas. The nature of that crime clearly poses a risk to the community until the FBI investigates who he provided visas to.''

Noman was arrested in Las Vegas. Five of the hijackers, including all four suspected pilots of the planes that were commandeered, visited Las Vegas at various times between May and August this year. Three of the hijacker leaders, Mohamed Atta, Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Alhazmi, were in Las Vegas on the same day in August.

A lawyer representing Noman told Johnston that Noman was beaten in his cell Monday while in custody of the U.S. Marshal's Service in Las Vegas.

``He was beaten because he was an Arab,'' said Shari Kaufman, an assistant federal public defender in Las Vegas. She pointed to cuts and bruises on Noman's face and said he was beaten by another inmate.

Kaufman said Noman was a trusted U.S. Consulate employee in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia who has been wrongly accused and held because of anti-Arab fear in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.