Cities searched for bomb devices over holidays

Despite published report, no nuclear scientists sent to Baltimore, officials say

January 08, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Bush administration officials said yesterday that they deployed teams of nuclear scientists to four cities across the country over the holidays with devices that can detect nuclear or radiological material in an effort to thwart a terrorist attack such as a dirty bomb.

No teams, however, were deployed to Baltimore, officials said, despite a published report claiming otherwise.

About three dozen scientists were sent to Las Vegas, New York, Los Angeles and Washington with equipment one official said can be tucked into a backpack or suitcase. The device can scan the air for contaminants.

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security said they also lent police and emergency services departments in those four cities and a half-dozen others devices resembling pagers that sound an alarm if a radioactive substance is nearby.

The searches failed to turn up radiological devices, officials said.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and other city officials were initially concerned yesterday by a report in The Washington Post that suggested a team was deployed to Baltimore without their knowledge.

But the matter was quickly cleared up in an exchange of phone calls. Homeland security officials assured O'Malley's office that Baltimore had not been visited by such a team and was not among the cities mentioned in recent intelligence reports as a possible al-Qaida target.

The mayor said the experience was a sign that communication between federal and local authorities had improved. "We're getting a little better at this," he said. "That would not have been the case two years ago. That would have been a case of calls going out and calls not coming back."

A Bush administration official said the teams were deployed for the most part to provide security to large events or celebrations , most notably on Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year's Eve. One U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the groups also drove vehicles that can detect radiation or nuclear materials, criss-crossing the cities for days. Only the team in Las Vegas got a hit on a device, which turned out to be a false alarm, the official said.

The signal was coming from a storage locker owned by a homeless man who three years ago found a small piece of radium similar to those used in medical treatments for cancer.

"It should come as no surprise that the Department of Homeland Security would put special measures in place should something occur," said department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. "The actions were not based on specific information about a plot. ... But we know from experience that increasing security can deter a terrorist attack."

The measures were not unprecedented. The U.S. official said the teams have been deployed several hundred times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, mostly to provide protection and add security to large events. Many U.S. cities, including Baltimore, have large, immobile devices set up permanently to scan the air for contaminants.

The Homeland Security department raised the terror threat alert to orange or "high" Dec. 21 after multiple intelligence sources pointed to a possible al-Qaida strike over the holidays.

Sun staff writer Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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