Traces of terror: domestic security; suicide attacks certain in U.S., mueller warns
The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned today that suicide bombings like those that have left hundreds dead in Israel are ”inevitable” on American soil.
”I think we will see that in the future — I think it’s inevitable,” said the director, Robert S. Mueller III, whose agency is under siege by critics in Congress and elsewhere who contend that the bureau failed to follow up on clues that might have prevented the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks.
Speaking at a conference of the nation’s district attorneys, Mr. Mueller did not identify which terrorist groups might be considering such attacks in the United States, nor did he provide any specific time frame when they might occur.
His comments came a day after Vice President Dick Cheney issued a similarly vague public warning about the likelihood of new terrorist strikes, saying that another attack by Al Qaeda was ”almost certain” but that it could happen ”tomorrow or next week or next year.” Mr. Cheney made no reference to the possibility of suicide bombings here.
Mr. Mueller apparently did not know that his warnings today would be made public. Administration officials said that his remarks and those of Mr. Cheney, coupled with warnings last weekend from intelligence agencies that they had detected terrorist communications suggesting a new attack was being planned, were not part of any campaign by the White House to raise public alarm.
Nor, they said, were the warnings intended to deflect criticism over intelligence failures before Sept. 11. The F.B.I. has been the target of intense criticism after the disclosure that an agent in the bureau’s Phoenix office warned last July that Al Qaeda terrorists might be training in American flight schools.
Mr. Mueller suggested today that the F.B.I. and other agencies would not be able to stop new terrorism attacks in the United States or against American targets overseas because of the difficulty of recruiting informers who had penetrated the inner circle of terrorist groups.
His warnings came as the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee today confirmed news reports that a group of ”extremists” may have entered the United States in recent weeks aboard container ships that docked in American ports.
”We had an instance in which 25 extremists, as they were described, jumped on ships outside of the United States, hid in the container cargoes until they got to the United States and then disembarked,” the lawmaker, Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, said in an interview on CNN. ”And they’ve been lost in the American population.”
Mr. Graham offered no other details on the search for the men, but Congressional aides said the senator was referring to information gathered from the Coast Guard and intelligence agencies about a group of Middle Eastern men who had apparently jumped ship between late March and May 15 in ports in Miami, Port Everglades, Fla., Long Beach, Calif., and Savannah, Ga.
One Congressional aide stressed that the information had not been confirmed. A Coast Guard spokesman had no comment about Mr. Graham’s account.
Government analysts and private counterterrorism specialists have long worried that militant Islamic groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad might someday unleash a wave of suicide bombings in this country in an effort to pressure the United States to limit its support for Israel.
Their concerns have grown in the wake of the dozens of suicide bombings in Israel in the last 18 months in which Palestinians, many only teenagers, have strapped explosives to their bodies and walked into pizzerias, discos, malls and other places where Israeli civilians gathered.
Law-enforcement officials believe that an embittered Palestinian immigrant came within hours of detonating a nail-studded bomb in the New York City subway system in 1997, in what would have been the first such attack. The suspect, Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Maizar, was convicted of the plot two years later, though it was never clear if he was acting at the suggestion or behest of a terrorist group.
During the trial, which Mr. Abu Maizar clearly saw as a chance to publicize the plight of Palestinians, he testified he had intended the bomb to kill as many Jews as possible.
”I lived under the Israeli Army occupation for 20 years, facing all kinds of suffering from the aggression of the Israeli Army,” he testified in explaining his actions. Law-enforcement officials in New York say that Mr. Abu Maizar had planned to detonate the bomb in a subway station or on a subway line in a Brooklyn neighborhood where large numbers of Orthodox Jews live.
Mr. Mueller’s warnings today came during a question-and-answer session with the National Association of District Attorneys, which is meeting this week in Alexandria, Va., outside Washington. Aides said that Mr. Mueller did not realize that a reporter from The Associated Press was in the audience. F.B.I. officials later confirmed the accuracy of the quotations cited by the A.P.
On Capitol Hill, the debate continued today to center on how to investigate previous warnings and the government’s responses to them in the months and years before Sept. 11.
There was new concern among lawmakers over how the Bush administration had responded to the arrest in Minnesota last August of Zacarias Moussaoui, who has since been described as the ”20th hijacker” in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Confirming reports in The Star Tribune of Minneapolis and The Wall Street Journal, the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged today it had received a warning in August from the F.B.I. about Mr. Moussaoui’s arrest. But the agency said it issued no warning to airlines because there was no evidence to suggest he was part of a terrorist plot.
Rallying behind the White House, House Republican leaders said today they opposed creating an independent commission to investigate how the government dealt with terrorism warnings before Sept. 11.
The Republican opposition made it unlikely that a proposal for an outside group to scrutinize the performance of the government would soon be approved by the House, leaving the House and Senate intelligence committees to make their own investigation.
Representative Dick Armey of Texas, the House majority leader, said he opposed an outside inquiry. Last weekend, he said, ”This is a professional matter of national security, utmost national security importance.”
”It should be handled professionally, it should be handled carefully, and it should be handled quietly,” he said.
Other lawmakers, led by Senators Joseph I. Lieberman and John McCain, are pushing to create a 14-member independent commission. Mr. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, and Mr. McCain, an Arizona Republican often at odds with the administration, have said they may try to push legislation through shortly after Memorial Day.
Tests of Anthrax Workers
WASHINGTON, May 20 (AP) — The Justice Department is preparing to give lie detector tests to hundreds of federal workers at two places where anthrax is stored, hoping to identify suspects in the letter attacks last fall, a law enforcement official said tonight.
Beginning in June, the government will administer the tests to workers at the sites, Fort Detrick, Md., and Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
The government will focus on workers who had expertise in preparing anthrax for use as a weapon and those who may have had access to it, the official said. Autor: Philp Shenon