NEW YORK -- As New Yorkers coped yesterday with a new and specific threat against the city's subway system, they also wrestled with a troubling question: Why did federal officials continue to play down the seriousness of the threat that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said required a major increase in subway security?
Less than 24 hours after Bloomberg made a late-afternoon announcement of an "imminent" subway bombing plot, the nation's largest transit system was operating smoothly, New York City officials said.
Police, many in riot gear, were deployed in greater numbers than usual at many of the city's 468 stations.
There was a brief morning scare at Pennsylvania Station; police evacuated the Amtrak waiting area and removed a soda can bubbling over with a suspicious green substance; it was later determined to be a prank, officials said.
In the District of Columbia yesterday afternoon, the Washington Monument was evacuated after a bomb threat was called to local police. U.S. Park Police Sgt. Scott Fear said the monument was evacuated and an initial search turned up nothing worrisome.
Although details of the New York subway threat were sketchy, Defense Department officials revealed that the plot, which purportedly involved placing bombs in baby carriages and other containers, originally came from military sources in Iraq.
Based on that information - later given to federal and New York officials - military officers conducted a raid this week in Iraq designed to disrupt the plot, according to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, a Pentagon spokesman.
Federal officials refused to say how many individuals were arrested, saying the operation was classified. The New York Times reported yesterday that three men - described as al-Qaida operatives - had been detained in the suspected plot. Citing unnamed sources, Newsday reported that city police are searching for a fourth operative, who might have traveled from Iraq to New York.
Bloomberg said the city acted responsibly, based on what was known. Asked about the differing assessments at a news conference yesterday afternoon, he said: "It's very different being an analyst in Washington as opposed to being here in New York, where you have a responsibility to protect lives."
He said the city had learned of the potential threat several days ago, but officials did not say anything publicly to avoid jeopardizing the lives of American military personnel who were carrying out a raid near Baghdad to disrupt the plot. Once the military operation was complete, the public was notified, the mayor said.
In Washington, officials said they supported New York City's right to issue a public warning. But they also continued to play down the seriousness of the threat.
President Bush, asked whether New York officials had overreacted, said: "I think they took the information that we gave and made the judgments they thought were necessary."
In another twist, some federal law enforcement officials in Washington blamed the Department of Homeland Security for essentially creating an unwarranted panic on New York subways. They said the information that led to the elevated alert was not only uncorroborated and not credible, but also released without authorization.
One senior federal law enforcement official said the threat reporting was based on "third-party information," or conversations among men in Iraq that were overheard by others; this led to men being detained over comments they had allegedly made about traveling to New York to detonate bombs in the subway.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the information was gleaned from an continuing military operation in Iraq, passed to the National Counter-terrorism Center at the CIA, and then disseminated to participating law enforcement and intelligence agencies - including Homeland Security.
"DHS took information learned from an ongoing military operation and presented it without clearance, and without understanding the complexities of what it was all about," the official said.
"It was irresponsible," he said.
Josh Getlin and Josh Meyer write for the Los Angeles Times.