Gridlock, But No Bomb

Told of terror plot against a Baltimore tunnel, officials close tubes

4 Detained In Investigation

October 19, 2005|By MATTHEW DOLAN | MATTHEW DOLAN,SUN REPORTER

Investigating a tip that terrorists planned to blow up one of two tunnels running beneath Baltimore's harbor, authorities temporarily shut down Interstate 95 - the East Coast's major north-south artery - yesterday to aid the search for suspects.

The threat, described by federal officials as specific but unsubstantiated, claimed that an Egyptian man living in the Baltimore area was plotting to drive a bomb-laden vehicle into one of the tunnels and detonate the explosives.

At least six Egyptian terrorists planned to smuggle the explosives into the Port of Baltimore by ship, according to a tipster. Agents searched a Southeast Baltimore market and two pizza restaurants and detained four men - three Egyptians and a Jordanian - on immigration violations.

But that same informant had a "questionable" performance on a polygraph and his story has not been corroborated by others, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

State officials defended the decision by Maryland Transportation Authority Police Chief Gary McLhinney to close I-95 at the Fort McHenry Tunnel for about an hour and Interstate 895 at the Harbor Tunnel for two hours starting at 11:30 a.m. Police acted without warning motorists, rerouting traffic and searching cars and trucks. The closures and heightened security measures rippled into widespread gridlock at midday.

About 115,000 vehicles use the eight-lane Fort McHenry Tunnel, completed in 1985, on an average day, and 71,000 use the four-lane Harbor Tunnel, built in 1957.

Both sunken tubes are about 1.5 miles long and serve as vital links in the highway system that carries traffic in and around Baltimore.

"We were obviously at some risk, some danger that the tunnel was part of this operation but not the sole part of this operation," Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told CNN yesterday after an afternoon news conference.

Federal law enforcement officials were more cautious in their assessments. The special agent in charge of Baltimore's FBI office, Kevin Perkins, described the tip as a "threat of undetermined credibility to an unspecified tunnel in the Baltimore area."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and his police command staff expressed frustration that they had been included in every aspect of the investigation - including locating of suspects in the city - but that they were not told of the state's decision to close the tunnels.

The mayor said he and his staff learned of the shutdowns from news reports.

Search for suspects

Both state and federal officials described the surprise tunnel closures as essential in their coordinated efforts to give federal agents time to search for suspects, including at Koko Market in Highlandtown and two pizza restaurants, one in Dundalk.

"The information was somewhat specific as to date and time, and this required appropriate investigation follow-up to be conducted," Perkins said. "At this point, no evidence collected to date has corroborated the threat as it's going on. However, the investigation is still ongoing."

Nonetheless, Perkins stood by state officials, saying, "The FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, along with our other state and local partners, fully support the actions that had to be taken to protect the citizens of Maryland."

Federal authorities were detaining at least four men last night on immigration violations, including an Egyptian man who worked at Koko. All four men held in custody had previously been ordered deported from the United States but had failed to comply, immigration officials said.

Officials did not immediately release their names.

Yesterday's decision to shut I-95, one of Maryland's busiest highways, through its largest city marked the state's most dramatic anti-terrorism effort since Sept. 11, 2001. Questions immediately emerged about whether the decision to close the highway and tunnels matched the credibility of the threat.

A similar threat against the New York City subway system prompted city officials to step up security efforts in the public transit system Oct. 6, a measure later scaled back because of the unreliability of the threat's source.

Credibility issues

In the tunnel investigation, the "source's credibility is unknown but the source has voluntarily provided information with the perceived expectation of receiving special treatment for unrelated criminal activity conducted overseas," said one federal law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation.

O'Malley said he could not discuss the credibility of the threat.

But the mayor did say "I am not aware, nor is the police commissioner, of any evidence that has been obtained to corroborate the credibility or the degree of the threat."

Word of a potential attack on Maryland's transportation system also brought back memories of a Virginia man with connection to the Palestinian group Hamas who had been arrested after his wife videotaped the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland last year.

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