FBI expanding interviews to ward off possible terror attacks

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Fearing terrorist attacks this summer and fall, the FBI is using its latest intelligence to expand interviews in U.S. communities to find al-Qaida operatives before they strike.

An FBI official said the interviews will be driven by information gathered by the 2004 Threat Task Force, composed of bureau agents and analysts, plus experts from the intelligence community and Department of Homeland Security.

The official said only a small number of interviews have taken place so far, but they will be conducted on a larger scale in coming weeks.

Among the more immediate concerns are potential attacks at the national party conventions later this month and in late August.

To step up intelligence-gathering, the FBI is bringing agents from around the country to its Washington headquarters on temporary assignments to work on the task force.

"The conventions are only part of it. This is really driven by information we collect, not by an event," said the official, who under FBI guidelines did not want to be quoted by name.

The task force is part of the FBI's reorganized intelligence operation, which includes intelligence groups in every field office around the country and a new Directorate of Intelligence, which will have its own budget and headquarters.

The reorganization is intended to spot any gaps in intelligence, a consequence of the bureau's failure to connect information that might have prevented the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The FBI has conducted community interviews before, going into Arab-American neighborhoods after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings to seek information. And, after the United States invaded Iraq, the FBI interviewed thousands of Iraqi-born individuals living in the United States to try to uncover potential terrorists and to protect the rest from hate crimes.

While current interviews are not tied exclusively to conventions, FBI Director Robert Mueller said recently that these events present inviting targets.

"This summer and fall our nation will celebrate a number of events that serve as powerful symbols of our free and democratic society. Unfortunately, the same events that fill most of us with hope and pride are seen by terrorists as prime vehicles for sowing fear and chaos," Mueller said.

The renewed federal effort is in addition to stringent security measures planned by state and local officials. The Democratic National Convention will be at Boston's FleetCenter from July 26 to July 29, and the Republicans will meet at Madison Square Garden in New York from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2.

The Secret Service has ordered Boston officials to close North Station rail hub and 40 miles of roads around the FleetCenter, including a portion of Interstate 93.

New York's plan calls for one lane of avenues directly outside Madison Square Garden to remain open to motorists, except during the approximately 13 hours the convention will be in session. It also imposes parking restrictions and reroutes bus service. Streets bordering the convention to the north and south would be closed for several blocks.

Secret Service spokeswoman Ann Roman said her agency has been working with state and local officials to secure the convention sites.

"We're confident after working over a year with these other agencies and forming partnerships with them, we will be able to provide a safe and secure environment," she said. "We will be prepared to respond to any number of different situations."

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