Nuclear plot suspects freed after mix-up
Julian Borger in Washington
Thursday November 1, 2001
Six "Middle Eastern" men were stopped in the American Midwest while carrying pictures and plans of a Florida nuclear plant and the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, only to be released after a security mix-up, it was revealed yesterday.
The incident, which took place in an unnamed state last weekend, is one of the factors that triggered a string of heightened security measures at US nuclear power stations, including a ban on flights below 18,000ft and within 10 miles of a reactor. The mix-up that led to their release has also opened up rifts between America's security services.
Another of the factors behind the FBI's general alert was revealed yesterday as the interception of communications between known members of al-Qaida. One of them was sent from Canada to Afghanistan, and passed to the US by Canadian intelligence. According to one report, the message referred to a big event which was supposed to happen "down south" this week.
A source close to the investigation into the September 11 attacks said the men stopped in the Midwest - travelling in two groups of three in light-coloured cars - were of Middle Eastern appearance and were carrying Israeli passports.
As well as the pictures and descriptions of the nuclear plant and the pipeline, retractable knives similar to the so-called box cutters used by the September 11 hijackers were found in the cars.
"The police did check the passport numbers with the INS (Immigration and Naturalisation Service), but got an OK on them, so they let them go," the source said.
It was unclear last night whether the men had Hebrew or Arab names, and a spokesman for the Israeli embassy said he was unaware of the incident. The INS also denied any knowledge of the incident.
The attorney general, John Ashcroft, and the FBI director, Robert Mueller, were said to be "furious" that the INS allowed the men to go free before the FBI could question them.
Vincent Cannistraro, the former chief of CIA counter-terrorist operations said the incident exposed the deficiencies of the US security organisations. "There's a lot of bickering, a lot of turf battles. You've got a culture which doesn't share information. I don't see how you go about breaking that," Mr Cannistraro said.
Tom Ridge, the newly created director of homeland security, has the task of forcing the competing agencies to cooperate, but so far he has had difficulties coordinating the administration's message.
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