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Rumored plot puts New York, D.C. on alert

Traffic scanned in Manhattan; information still 'sketchy’

By Eric Schmitt and Scott Shane
New York Times / September 10, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Bomb-sniffing dogs were deployed in the Washington subway and the police searched vehicles at New York’s Brooklyn Bridge on Friday as counterterrorism officials with frustratingly imprecise clues hunted for at least two men reportedly dispatched by Al Qaeda to set off a car or truck bomb in New York or Washington.

Two senior American law enforcement officials said an informer in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region passed word of the plot, intended to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, to US intelligence officers Wednesday. The informer said two American citizens of Arab ancestry had left Afghanistan, traveled through one or more other countries and reached the United States as recently as last week.

But the informer’s information on the plot was second- or third-hand, another official said. It included only a vague physical description of the two men - one described as 5 feet tall, the other 5-foot-8 - and a first name for one, Suliman, which is common in the Middle East. The tipster also described a third conspirator, but he appeared to have traveled to Europe.

“All this information is very, very sketchy,’’ one of the law enforcement officials said.

While the informer was not specific about targets, officials in both New York and Washington increased scrutiny of bridges and tunnels, long considered potential targets for vehicle bombs.

The increased security came as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden publicly discussed the threat, trying to strike a balance between urging vigilance and preventing panic. “There are specifics - in that sense it was credible,’’ Biden said on the ABC News program “Good Morning America,’’ “but there’s no certitude.’’

The increased police presence forced drivers heading toward Manhattan on the Brooklyn Bridge to squeeze into a single lane and through a gantlet of police officers, who walked around and between the cars, singling out some for a closer look. In Lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from ground zero, police vehicles with flashing lights were positioned in front of the former American Stock Exchange building.

“It’s good,’’ said Wolfgang Klebe, who runs a shipping business in Lower Manhattan, as he watched the officers yesterday morning. “They have to do this.’’

More bomb sweeps of parking garages were planned; ferries were to be given extra police coverage; and cars parked illegally were to be towed quickly, not just ticketed.

Officials briefed on the threat offered varying views of how serious it was, and some suggested that the strong reaction from federal and local agencies reflected heightened wariness around the anniversary. The two senior law enforcement officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation, were in the skeptical camp.

“It’s 9/11, baby,’’ one official said. “We have to have something to get spun up about.’’ The second official said the reported plot “could all be one big fabrication, but no one wants to take any chances.’’ Another official acknowledged that the tip could turn out to be wrong. But the imminent anniversary did not allow much of a window to study its veracity.

“There was no time to sit around and think it over,’’ the official said. “The appropriate thing to do it is to share the information and provide proper warning.’’

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York - who on Thursday night appeared with the city’s police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, to announce that vehicle checkpoints would be set up in time for the morning rush - went to his office by subway Friday. Of the latest threat, the mayor said, “It’s serious, but I think the right answer is to go about your business.’’

On his weekly radio program yesterday morning, Bloomberg said, “We’ve got to make sure we don’t let the terrorists take away our rights without any terrorism.’’

“If you do lock yourself in your house because you’re scared, they’re winning,’’ he said. “If you don’t let somebody else pray or say what they want to say or you deny any rights to certain people - that’s exactly what they want. I don’t think we should do that.’’

Washington’s mayor, Vincent C. Gray, announced an increased police presence, with officers working 12-hour shifts and leaves restricted.

“We take these threats seriously - as we do all threats to our city - and citizens should know we are taking all the appropriate steps to ensure their safety,’’ Gray said.

Washington’s police chief, Cathy L. Lanier, advised the public not to focus solely on reporting trucks, noting that smaller explosives like propane tanks can be detonated in smaller vehicles or in buildings.

“I really think over the next 24 hours, with the work that they’re doing, we’ll start to see something one way or the other,’’ Lanier said after a news briefing.

In a message to US Senate lawmakers and staff, the office of the Senate sergeant-at-arms, Terrence Gainer, urged calm, saying a “whiff of a threat’’ on the anniversary of the attacks was “not unexpected.’’ He gently criticized the warning as “rather confusing’’ and “well intentioned, perhaps helpful, but not very well coordinated.’’

“In this case, there is no reason to change the way we each conduct our daily business,’’ he said.

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