WASHINGTON -- A year after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Justice Department obtained video surveillance tapes suggesting terrorists were targeting Las Vegas casinos, but authorities never alerted the public as they discussed whether a warning might hurt tourism or increase the casinos' legal liability, internal memos show.
The mayor of Las Vegas said yesterday he was never told about the tapes uncovered in Detroit and Spain in 2002, and had been assured by the FBI there were no credible threats against his city. "If I were told, I would certainly tell the public," Mayor Oscar Goodman said.
But memos and e-mails between federal prosecutors, obtained by The Associated Press, say Las Vegas authorities were alerted to some of the footage by Aug. 30, 2002. Later, numerous local law enforcement officials were invited by a senior FBI agent to view the footage, but most spurned the invitation, the memos say.
One document quotes a federal prosecutor in Las Vegas as saying the mayor was concerned about the "deleterious effect on the Las Vegas tourism industry" if the Detroit evidence became public. Another memo states the casinos didn't want to see the footage for fear it would make them more likely to be held liable in civil court if an attack occurred.
One of the tapes, found in Spain, shows Al Qaeda's European operatives casing Las Vegas casinos in 1997, engaging in casual conversation that included an apparent reference to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The tape was sent to Al Qaeda's leadership to help in the selection of targets, documents show.
The documents state the two tapes include footage of the MGM Grand, Excalibur, and New York-New York casinos -- three hotels within a short distance of each other on the Las Vegas strip with a combined total of 11,000 rooms.
"The information, unfortunately, was not taken as seriously as we believed it to have been," Assistant US Attorney Richard Convertino said in an interview, recounting how only two local police officers took up the FBI agent's offer to see the tape.
"The reason that he [the FBI agent] was given for the low turnout was because of liability. That if they heard this information they would have to act on it. It was extraordinarily unacceptable and absolutely outrageous," Convertino said.
The prosecutor said he later asked a Las Vegas police officer, who had seen the tape and flown to Detroit to help, why more wasn't done. "This officer told me that the amount of money that travels through Las Vegas on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis -- if something doesn't go boom, nothing is going to be done," he said.
Convertino led the successful prosecution of the Detroit terror cell but has since been removed from the case amid an investigation into whether the prosecution team withheld certain evidence from defense lawyers. Convertino alleges the probe is retaliation for his recent cooperation with Congress.
Justice Department officials declined to comment yesterday, citing a gag order imposed by the judge in the Detroit case.
Goodman, the mayor, said he didn't learn about either tape until an AP story on Sunday. Clark County Undersheriff Doug Gillespie said he first learned about the Detroit footage during the Detroit trial in spring 2003 and found out about the Spanish tape afterward.
"They're saying we didn't do our job, and it is to the contrary. They had the information. They chose not to give it to us," Gillespie said of federal authorities.
Las Vegas has been considered a terror target since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks when it was determined that Mohamed Atta and his hijackers made trips there before their suicide attacks. But the extent of video surveillance hasn't received attention.
The owner of the Excalibur, one of the casinos in the videos, said yesterday he was never told. "You're giving me information I've never heard," said Glenn Schaeffer, president and chief financial officer of
Yvette Mone, a spokeswoman for the MGM, declined to say if casino officials were invited to see the tape, simply stating, "We have always cooperated with state, local and federal authorities in dealing with these matters and we continue to do so today."
Homeland Security officials said yesterday there is no imminent threat known to Las Vegas, although it remains a suspected target. They said the 2002 episode showed the need for the instant local alert system the department created last year.
Knowledge of the tapes reached the highest levels of the Justice Department. The department's terrorism chief, Barry Sabin, referenced the casino footage in a memo to the FBI.
In late summer 2002, FBI agents discovered the casino footage when they belatedly decoded a European surveillance tape found a year earlier in the Detroit terror cell's apartment. A few weeks later, a Justice Department specialist provided prosecutors similar surveillance that Spanish authorities had recovered from an Al Qaeda cell in Madrid.
When FBI supervisory agent Paul George flew to Las Vegas to show the Detroit tape, "the FBI, casino representatives, Clark County Sheriff's Department, and the JTTF [joint terrorism task force] declined to attend," Assistant US Attorney Keith Corbett wrote.