Feds released 3 plotters in June

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September 16, 2001 -- EXCLUSIVE Three suspects in the bloodiest terrorist attack in U.S. history were in federal custody in New York three months ago - and set free, The Post has learned.

The three were taken into custody last June after Federal Protective Service cops spotted them brazenly snapping reconnaissance photos of 26 Federal Plaza, federal law-enforcement and military-intelligence sources said.

The men - who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent - were grilled by FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service agents, their film was confiscated and then they were released.

Sources in the FBI and military intelligence now believe the three are tied to exiled Saudi terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, and that investigators botched an opportunity to gather critical information about the scheme to destroy the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and other symbols of U.S. power.

An article about the feds' brief detention of the picture-taking men appeared in The Post on July 1. The exclusive report disclosed that federal cops had taken an unidentified man into custody after he was seen snapping pictures at 26 Federal Plaza, which houses the FBI and other federal agencies.

It said the man was questioned and released - something authorities regretted days later when the film was developed.

The photos were of security checkpoints, police posts and surveillance cameras at 26 Federal Plaza, two federal courthouses and the federal building at 290 Broadway.

A newly obtained U.S. Marshals Service memo provides more detail about the incident - including the fact that three men were involved in the picture taking.

"These three subjects were discovered taking pictures in and around an N.Y.C. federal facility that served no legitimate purpose," the secret memo reports.

"Further investigation by the FBI showed that the three have left their last known residences, leaving behind paychecks from their employment."

The memo directed authorities to detain the men if they were spotted.

Three grainy intelligence photos of the men were attached to the memo, with the name of one suspect, Mohamed Hassan Abbadi, scrawled under what appeared to be a passport picture.

Also stapled to the memo was The Post story, in which anxious authorities expressed concern that plans for a terror attack were under way.

The release of the three men "was definitely a lost opportunity," author and terrorism expert Tony Dennis told The Post.

"That's just a simple bureaucratic foul-up and lack of coordination.

"The feds could have immediately developed the pictures and run more, detailed intelligence checks" on the suspects, he said.

That would have raised "probable cause" to arrest the suspects or allow the feds to track their movements and tap their phones, he added.

Dennis suspects FBI and INS agents did not exchange information about the men with each other.

"We don't necessarily need more laws to pry into peoples' lives," Dennis said. "We need more inter-agency cooperation."

Former New York FBI chief Lewis Schiliro agreed that more extensive background checks could have been conducted and the film developed more quickly, but he defended the agents' actions.

"What they did was probably reasonable at the time," he said. "I don't see where they could have done too much more."

Schiliro said detaining the three men until more complete background checks were made might have raised the controversial issue of "profiling" suspects and violated their civil liberties.

The incident took place shortly after four bin Laden henchmen had been convicted in Manhattan federal court for the August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. http://www.nypost.com/news/regionalnews/4222.htm

-- Rich Marsh (marshr@airmail.net), September 18, 2001


Federal Protection Service. Who the heck are these nincompoops?

-- David Williams (DAVIDWILL@prodigy.net), September 18, 2001.

"...and the film developed more quickly..."

I know this area well. There are several "one-hour" photo shops literally *across the street* from the Federal building.

The legal/civil rights issues in this situation are unclear to me -- this is not a good precedent for a free nation -- but, once the decision was made to detain the people taking the pictures and to seize the film, only an idiot wouldn't get the photos developed before letting the people go.

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), September 18, 2001.

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