Disney sites, Sears Tower on terrorists' study lists

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Published Saturday, October 13, 2001

Disney sites, Sears Tower on terrorists' study lists


Terrorist groups have studied at least five sites for possible attacks in the United States, including Walt Disney World in Central Florida, Disneyland in Southern California and the Sears Tower in Chicago, according to three internal government reports.

Terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network also evaluated the sprawling Mall of America in Minnesota and unspecified sports complexes, said two senior Bush administration officials familiar with the reports, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Importantly, the surveillance information gathered by authorities investigating the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States stopped short of suggesting that the additional sites assessed by terrorists were actually chosen as targets.

No evidence has come to light suggesting that attacks are -- or ever were -- planned on any of those buildings or theme parks.

The warning of possible new terrorist attacks that the FBI issued Thursday was based not on the reports that terrorists had been evaluating specific targets but on a message to al Qaeda operatives to launch attacks in the United States and perhaps elsewhere.

Intelligence officials learned of that order Wednesday, a senior intelligence officer said Friday.

The FBI took the al Qaeda order to attack -- at unknown locations and possibly this weekend -- seriously enough to issue its warning and an urgent request ``to immediately notify the FBI and local law enforcement of any unusual or suspicious activity.''

Terrorists often carefully check out buildings or other locations that will be involved in an attack, law enforcement officials say. Some of the suicide hijackers who crashed the four jetliners Sept. 11 were seen on similar planes in weeks before the attacks.

Asked to comment on the reports that the sites had been cased by terrorists, but not necessarily targeted or threatened by them, FBI spokesman John Collingwood said:

``The FBI has no information about these specific threats. If we or any other agency had specific threat information, we would have immediately notified the intended targets and the affected public as well. The government agencies involved in this investigation are sharing all threat information.''

Asked to respond only to the evidence of terrorist surveillance, apart from the question of threats, Collingwood stuck to his answer.

Attorney General John Ashcroft's office did not respond to requests for comment.


The discovery that suspected members of bin Laden's terror network were studying other potential targets -- though not necessarily planning to attack them -- poses a dilemma for law enforcement agencies and businesses that must find ways to take such warnings seriously without panicking the public.

``One objective of these people is to inspire fear and make people change their behavior,'' one U.S. intelligence official said Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. ``One way to do that is to check out a lot of places and make a lot of threats so nobody feels safe anywhere.''

To complicate matters, intelligence officials believe that in the past some bin Laden operatives have laid false trails and issued bogus orders to deceive their adversaries and test what channels the United States and its allies are monitoring.

Representatives of the buildings and theme parks said they had no reason to think their facilities ever were targeted or even cased, but they said they have joined the national effort to tighten security wherever large numbers of people gather.


At the Sears Tower -- the world's second-tallest building, at 1,454 feet -- security has doubled since Sept. 11, and the 110th-floor observation deck has been closed, pending installation of new security devices, a spokesman said.

Employees and visitors now must show identification, and packages are searched, he said. In addition, armed, off-duty Chicago police officers joined the building's security detail Thursday and have the power to make arrests, the spokesman said.

According to the internal government reports, investigators found among the possessions of the suicide hijackers and their suspected colleagues sketches or reports describing the Sears Tower, the theme parks, the Mall of America and unknown sports facilities.

News reports surfaced earlier this month that the Sears Tower had been targeted by terrorists. The FBI denied those reports, which went beyond assertions that terrorists had just assessed the building.

Friday's disclosures came as police fearing truck bombs staffed checkpoints around the Capitol in Washington, the FBI expanded its anthrax investigation to New York City and an unsettled nation wondered what might happen next.

Authorities counseled all Americans to be particularly vigilant. Suspicious mail and unusual activity wherever crowds gather should be immediately reported to police, they said.

``If individuals receive mail of which they are suspicious, they should not open it, they should not shake it,'' Ashcroft said.


President Bush said the nation was ``still in danger'' Friday, though he vowed yet again that terrorists ``will not take this country down.''

Bush and other administration officials have said repeatedly that if they develop credible information of a specific threat against a site -- rather than merely learn that the site was assessed by terrorists -- they would immediately warn the public.

The president said Thursday night that there was ``a general threat against America'' based on certain intelligence information and ``had it been a specific threat, we would have contacted those to whom the threat was directed.''

Representatives of Disney World, Disneyland and the Mall of America said extra security has been in place since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

They said they had no reason to believe their facilities were being targeted now, and security was not significantly intensified Thursday or Friday.


Disney World, near Orlando, has added security staff, both in and out of uniform, and examines the bags of arriving customers, spokeswoman Marilyn Waters said. Other, undisclosed measures are also being taken, she said.

She said Disney World officials are in frequent contact with the FBI and other law enforcement departments.

``We don't discuss information that would be related to possible threats either way, but we have no reason to believe we are any more of a target than anyone else,'' Waters said. ``We would take any threat very seriously.''

A Mall of America spokeswoman said the mall has taken 22 security measures since Sept. 11 and added nothing additional Friday. ``We are working with local and national authorities and they have told us there are no credible threats at this time,'' LuAnn Olson said.

Ray Gomez, a spokesman for Disneyland, in Anaheim, Calif., said he did not know if the park had been cased by potential terrorists. A spokesman at Disney World echoed that remark.

``We have not received anything from the FBI saying we are [subject to] a specific or credible threat,'' Gomez said.

The park has taken security measures similar to those at Disney World, he said.

With a fourth case of anthrax confirmed Friday, this time involving an assistant to NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, Bush said: ``I want everybody in the country to know we're responding rapidly.''


Still, as military action overseas appeared to slow for a day, anxious Americans once again focused their attention uncomfortably close to home.

In Washington, police banned commercial trucks from portions of Constitution and Independence avenues near the Capitol. Large digital message boards directed trucks away from the Capitol in the main arteries that lead to the Washington landmark.

Washington police received training on how to spot truck bombs. Hundreds of trucks have been stopped and inspected in recent days, the police said.

At the Capitol, police with undercarriage mirrors examined all cars entering the grounds, and drivers were compelled to negotiate around concrete barriers. Grassy areas were fenced in to deny easy access.

The Capitol Police Board, which consists of the Senate and House of Representatives sergeants at arms and the chief of the Capitol Police Force, considered using the National Guard to augment security.

With anthrax now found in the offices of a second news organization, newspaper and broadcast outlets around the nation and even overseas bolstered security.

Many advised employees not to open any unexpected letter or package.

Amid it all, authorities urged Americans to keep things in perspective.

Speaking as his city dealt with another crisis, this time biological, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani urged calm.

``People should not overreact to this,'' he said.

James Kuhnhenn of The Herald's Washington Bureau contributed to this report.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 13, 2001

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