Nuclear plants tighten security
FBI seeking 6 men seen in Midwest
BY MARTIN MERZER, CURTIS MORGAN AND LENNY SAVINO
Published Wednesday, October 31, 2001
Miami Herald (web archive)
WASHINGTON -- As the nation again stands on high alert, the FBI is searching for six men stopped by police in the Midwest last weekend but released -- even though they possessed photos and descriptions of a nuclear power plant in Florida and the Trans-Alaska pipeline, a senior law enforcement official said Tuesday.
The Federal Aviation Administration imposed new flight restrictions around nuclear plants nationwide Tuesday, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission advised the nation's 103 nuclear plants late Monday to fortify security.
The FAA temporarily banned all flights near New York's Yankee Stadium, where President Bush stood before a huge crowd at a World Series game Tuesday night and -- wearing a New York City Fire Department jacket -- tossed the ceremonial first pitch.
``It helps to keep the fabric of our country strong,'' said spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Meanwhile, an administration official said the urgent terrorism alert sounded Monday evening by Attorney General John Ashcroft was based largely on a message transmitted Sunday night by an Osama bin Laden supporter in Canada to Afghanistan.
The message referred to a major event that was going to take place ``down south'' this week, the official said. It apparently was a reference to south of the U.S.-Canada border.
The Herald reported Monday that American officials feared that members of bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network had been unleashed to launch attacks without specific permission from their superiors.
On Tuesday, agency spokesmen said the FAA's flight restrictions and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's security recommendations were based on Ashcroft's general alert rather than a specific threat. Ashcroft warned that Americans at home or abroad could be struck by another terrorist attack this week.
The incident in the Midwest apparently contributed to the new terror warning. The six men stopped by police were traveling in groups of three in two white sedans, said the senior law enforcement official, who requested anonymity.
In addition to the photographs and other suspicious material, they carried ``box cutters and other equipment,'' the official said. They appeared to be from the Middle East and held Israeli passports.
They were let go after the Immigration and Naturalization Service determined that the passports were valid and that the men had entered the United States legally, the official said.
The FBI declined to comment. An INS spokesman called the report unfounded. ``We have absolutely no information at this point in time to substantiate that story,'' said the agency's Russ Bergeron.
It could not be learned in what state the six men were stopped or how they aroused suspicion. It was not known whether their true identities matched those on the passports, or why the FBI was not releasing their names or descriptions.
Investigators think the men almost certainly have changed cars by now and have fled to Canada or elsewhere.
Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller were ``furious'' that the INS allowed the men to be released without consulting the FBI, the official said.
Ashcroft and Mueller appeared Monday evening at a hastily called news conference to announce that the government had ``credible'' but vague information that another wave of terrorist attacks could strike Americans within a week.
Shortly after that announcement, Vice President Dick Cheney moved once again to an undisclosed secure location and remained there Tuesday.
There are three nuclear power facilities in Florida: Florida Power & Light Co.'s Turkey Point facility, south of Miami, and St. Lucie facility, near Fort Pierce, and Florida Power Corp.'s Crystal River plant, about 85 miles north of St. Petersburg.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a new threat advisory Monday night to all nuclear power plants, other electrical plants, a dozen decommissioned reactors and three nuclear fuel-manufacturing facilities, said spokesman Victor Dricks.
The action was in response to the FBI's general warning, he said, and the commission was ``not aware of any specific threats'' against any power plant.
The advisory suggested the plants fortify perimeter security and, if necessary, call in help from local or state law officers or the National Guard.
At least one Florida plant was doing that Tuesday.
At Crystal River, workers installed concrete road barricades at strategic spots inside the sprawling site, which includes one nuclear reactor and four fossil-fuel plants. Citrus County sheriff's deputies were summoned to supplement the plant's full-time security force, said Florida Power spokesman Mac Harris.
Florida Power & Light, which runs the two other nuclear plants in Florida, would not discuss security measures or threats in detail.
Spokeswoman Rachel Scott said FPL's plants remained at the highest level of alert. ``We are in very close communication with all levels of law enforcement, including the FBI, to ensure we have the security measures in place to protect the plants,'' she said.
Also Tuesday, the FAA restricted all flights below 18,000 feet and within 10 miles of 86 ``sensitive nuclear sites'' until Tuesday, the agency said. Exceptions can be made for law enforcement, medical and firefighting flights.
The 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which delivers 17 percent of the nation's domestic oil production, runs from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to Valdez on the Pacific.
An employee at the Valdez security office for Alayeska, the company that runs the pipeline, said there has been no company-wide alert.
Still, the incident in the Midwest apparently contributed to the many pieces of information that triggered the FBI's general alert.
A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the agency's warning was based on messages from known or suspected operatives of al Qaeda in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Jakarta, Indonesia, Afghanistan and elsewhere during the last week, coupled with a new message Sunday that suggested an attack within the next week.
However, the official said the sudden flood of messages could be ``deliberate deception of the kind we saw before Sept. 11,'' when bin Laden associates sent a flurry of messages suggesting a forthcoming attack on U.S. interests in Europe or the Middle East. Those messages held no hint of the U.S. hijackings to come.
Bin Laden is suspected of orchestrating the attacks on the four jetliners, the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon that killed nearly 5,000 people.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge defended the administration's decision to issue the alert and said it was unavoidably imprecise.
He said it was a ``convergence of credible sources that occasioned the alert. More than the usual, is all I can tell you.''
Ridge urged Americans to find new reservoirs of patience and to remain alert, but also to find a way to proceed with life as normally as possible. He noted that Bush was keeping his commitment to attend the World Series game.
``America has to continue to be America,'' Ridge said.
``What terrorists try to do is instill such uncertainty, such fear, such hesitation, that you don't do things that you normally do. And all we're saying with a general alert is to continue to live your lives, continue to be America, but be aware, be alert, be on guard.''
Herald staff writer Alfonso Chardy contributed to this report, as did Knight Ridder reporters Sumana Chatterjee, Jackie Koszczuk and The Philadelphia Inquirer's Mark Fazlollah in Washington.
Note they had "valid" Israeli passports.