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Authorities Search Cars in Florida on Terror Tip

Aired September 13, 2002 - 12:01   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: If you are just tuning into CNN, this is a live picture, a 20-mile stretch of Alligator Alley, as it's known, has been closed for almost 12 hours, since police stopped a car that ran a toll booth. There are two cars involved. One car has been cleared, and the other car being investigated by a number of agencies on the scene. Alerts had been posted for that car, and another one that pulled up behind it, after a woman in Georgia overheard three men discussing what sounded like plans for a terror attack in Miami. The men are being detained in Florida. They are not being called suspects. Right now, they are just being called into questioning. They have been detained. They have not been arrested, and are not being called suspects.
Our Mark Potter now working the story. He joins us on the phone.

Mark, what more can you fill us in on?

OK, we are trying to get our Mark Potter on the line with us. He is covering the story which continues to develop here.

Once again, I think we have Mark on the phone.

Mark, are you with us?


PHILLIPS: Mike, Are we looking at the first car or second car? I'm just sort of taken the helm here.

POTTER: If you tell me the color, I can tell you which one.

PHILLIPS: The white car, the white car.

POTTER: That is the second car, the one they are going to search next.

What is important for me to say is that the first car has now been cleared. They just completed that search a short while ago. They are doing it one car at a time. They finished up with the first of the cars, the dark one, and that has been moving out of the way to concentrate on the next. And a bomb squad commander on the scene told me a short while ago they have determined that there is no explosive device, nothing of concern inside of that first car. Now they will start looking carefully at the second. A preliminary scan of those both cars earlier led them to say publicly, that they did not think there was anything they could see, at least from a casual glance, but now they are going to go in and make sure as to the first car. They are convinced.

They moved the first car, and the man was not wearing a protective suit, and this is the next step. This is moving a little bit quicker than they predicted in the earlier hours today.

PHILLIPS: And, Mark, three men have now been detained. They are not being called suspects. And police have come out and made that very clear. Why is it that they are just being detained? Why not -- obviously this is a very serious situation. They just don't have solid evidence at this point to say they are suspects of any type of alleged crime?

POTTER: Yes, I mean this is based on a tip, from the woman in Georgia who heard them talking among themselves, and she did -- officers say she did absolutely the right thing, notifying them to defend their actions. They did what they do, given the information they were given, but it is not definitive in terms of any charges. I mean, it is possible that these are three guys heading to Florida to South Beach, and they were just bragging and making a lot of noise in a restaurant and they got themselves in trouble over it. It could be more serious if they don't know, and if they know, it would be difficult for them to file charges.

So in the meantime, they have got them on the scene, talking to them, and this is still a work in progress. They have to figure out what to do. The search is an important part of it.

PHILLIPS: And our Kelli Arena, she was talking about the government sources saying that these men are U.S. citizens, two of whom are naturalized, and sources say they are medical students of Middle Eastern heritage, and I guess the heritage, according to the AP, is Jordanian, Pakistani, Iranian. Actually, I am told we have Kelli Arena on the line,

Kelli, actually you are live with us.


PHILLIPS: All right, tell me more about this. I am seeing that they were of Jordanian, Pakistani and Iranian descent, is that correct, and then tell me about...

ARENA: We don't have that confirmed. Remember, Kyra, these men are not cooperating very much with authorities at this point. They have handed in what they say is their identification. And so we do have officials saying with the information they he have been provided, they do believe that two are naturalized U.S. citizens, one is a U.S. citizen, but they are saying, use the words appear to be, Kyra, because we could find out that this documentation is fake. There is always that possibility. So 99 percent sure that we're OK here, but there's always that 1 percent chance that these are fake documents.

And yes, they were medical students according to a variety of officials that I spoke to today, and they were attending school not here in the United States, but in Dominica, in the Caribbean, and I was also told by a U.S. official that it appears they were on their way to a medical conference in Miami. At least that is the story that has been told to them and they are corroborating. There is no specific information linking these individuals to any terrorist activity.

That is why their names are not being released. That is why there are no charges brought. They are being held for questioning at this point. That is it. This he are not being, as you said, and very important to underscore here, not being called suspects. Or being held as suspects for anything, terrorism or otherwise at this point.

Go ahead.

PHILLIPS: No, no, go ahead, Kelli?

ARENA: So, that is where we stand right now. There has been information that has come in through a variety of sources that is being corroborated at this time, I am told. Some of that information involves 5 -- individual that's came into the police headquarters in Hanover Park, a suburb of Chicago saying they may have information regarding this incident going on in Florida.

And I was told there is other information as well, that has come in, this is not to be confused with prior intelligence on any of these individuals. As you know, the minute somebody is taken too custody and thought to be involved in some way in a terrorist attack, their name is run through a variety of intelligence databases to see if there is any prior intelligence on that person that is terrorist- related. On that front, they have come up clean. There have been no hits of these names on any intelligence databases for terrorism.

However, since this incident, and the men have been in custody since 1:00 am this morning, there was information coming from a variety of sources that needs to be corroborated, tips, information, so on.

Nobody is getting real specific here, very, very cagey, again, because no one is charged with anything here. They do not know what they have. There has been not one trace of any explosives found, and you know, in that first car, they are still looking at the second, and the fact that they got a positive reading by the K-9s that went in in the beginning doesn't really mean a lot to law enforcement officials, because that could be anything. That could be hunting gear that was once in the car, fireworks from the July 4th holiday, still remnants of that smell that the dogs may have picked up on. So we do have to be cautious here.

Obviously, a great deal of concern. Law enforcement is doing what it can to get as much information as possible in a short period of time here. But you know, there is nothing hard, there is no evidence to suggest that these men were involved, or plotting or engaging in any terrorist activities at this point.

PHILLIPS: So, Kelli, your sources are telling you they are being extremely uncooperative.

ARENA: Yes, that was a quote. PHILLIPS: Can you define uncooperative? are they basically offended that this has happened, and so they as they don't want to...

ARENA: That's the motivation, Kyra, and I won't speculate on what the motivation is. I can just tell you that uncooperative, and when I said, well, they are just not providing a whole lot of information. They are keeping quiet. At first, they didn't even want their vehicles searched. You do not need you know a search warrant to go in. Once those dogs react, you can go in. That is probable cause. That's national security.

So you can go in and look at that vehicle without a warrant, but you know, you have to tread lightly here, in terms of violating someone's rights. They just don't have a whole lot to say right now.

PHILLIPS: Have our sources said to you, OK, from our past experience, usually they are cooperative if they have nothing to hide. That is what many people are thinking and watching.

ARENA: That is a very individual thing. That is really individual. Some people are very offended. As you know, there have been many complaints within the Arab-American community of racial profiling and so on, and so some people might argue, Well, why should they cooperate? They will just be thrown in a military brig somewhere anyway. Some people would suggest, Well, if they are not cooperating, they must have something to hide.

So we really should not speculate on motivation here. It is not helpful, we don't have any facts here to support either of those arguments.

But it is -- the reason there is such a level of concern, as you know, is A, we have just been moved from -- up a level on the alert status for the nation, so we are on a high state of alert, nervous, still edgy. I was even told that today being Friday the 13th was a concern.

PHILLIPS: Sort of eerie, isn't it?

ARENA: Right -- was of some concern to law enforcement, thinking you know, Hey, maybe somebody will try to pull off something on Friday the 13 working on the whole superstitious angle, and there are people that law enforcement say may have no connection to any formal terrorist group who may just be sympathizers to a cause, or may just think, you know what, we have never done anything like this before, we have no record, but you know what, we believe firmly that you know, the United States is evil, and so we are going to take action against it, very much on their own, individual.

Those are the individuals that law enforcement is most concerned about, because there is no prior intelligence on those types of individuals.

Now, let me back myself up here, because I am not suggesting that these people fit that bill. I am just telling you in the broader context of the conversation, and why there is a great deal of concern right now, is because you have many factors at work. Right now, no information to suggest that these three individuals are involved in any way with terrorist activity.

PHILLIPS: And Kelli, obviously, authorities want to be extra careful -- I mean, let's go back to September 11, and here we are not long after the anniversary of what happened on September 11, there are a lot of new rules that are being enforced...

ARENA: Exactly.


PHILLIPS: ... sure, new personnel. I mean, nowadays, we have to take everything seriously.

ARENA: Exactly. This is a woman who overheard a conversation in a Shoney's, you know, in Georgia. She calls up her local law enforcement. That information is immediately passed on to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Would that have happened a year and half ago, two years ago? Maybe not.

PHILLIPS: Probably not.


ARENA: So this is obviously, you can see and you have the protocols that are immediately in place. There was a suggestion that these gentlemen were heading toward Florida, and so immediately, Florida authorities were notified. A BOLO, which is "be on the look out" was issued.

PHILLIPS: And Kelli...

ARENA: And that plate and those vehicles were described in detail.

PHILLIPS: As we are watching live pictures here from our CNN affiliate WFOR in the Florida -- Miami, Florida area, here on Alligator Alley, we are watching two bomb technicians approaching the second car, as we watch these pictures, I want to bring in Dave Butler. He is a bio and chem specialist. We have him up in New York -- Dave, can you here me OK?


PHILLIPS: Terrific. And you are looking at these pictures -- well, first of all, you are watching these live pictures, correct?

BUTLER: Yes, that is right.

PHILLIPS: OK. So let's talk about these two bomb technicians. They have approached the robot. Take me step-by-step through the process here. Usually the robot is used as eyes, so bomb technicians are -- can stay away from any type of danger, but obviously they have approached the area, so what does this mean?

BUTLER: Well, of course, I am a chem, biological, radiological specialist...


BUTLER: ... not a bomb technician...

PHILLIPS: But Dave, if you think of a weapons of mass destruction team, wouldn't it incorporate individuals with a specialty in all of those areas, so let's say, for example, there is a bio-chem threat here, you would still have technicians like this, possibly, same type of procedure here?

BUTLER: They also would be specialists, and they would be taking other precautionary measures. I mean, the guys that you see there, from what I can see from the aerial photographs, don't seem to be wearing any form of breathing -- respiratory protection, so if they thought there was a biochemical-chemical hazard, then they would be wearing respirators or gas masks.

PHILLIPS: OK. I actually had some information coming through to me -- can you just tell me the last -- you were talking about if these were bio or chem technicians, they would have special breathing apparati on, so repeat that for me. I apologize, Dave.

BUTLER: Yes. They -- if it was a -- if they thought there was a biological or chemical connotation to this, this actual device, then, of course, they would be wearing some form of respiratory protection in the form of a gas mask or something like that. I can't quite see whether or not they are actually wearing any of that sort of thing. My instinct would be not.

PHILLIPS: OK. Sure, so your feeling here is that there isn't a chem or bio threat at this moment from what you can see.

BUTLER: Exactly.

PHILLIPS: OK. Very good. Dave Butler, we'll ask you to stay put there. Thank you very much. We are going to bring our Mark Potter back in. He is on the scene, working this scene. We have also got Justice correspondent Kelli Arena, she is live in D.C., she has been talking with intelligence sources about what has been happening here.

If you are just tuning in, you are looking at about a 20-mile stretch of Alligator Alley. It has now been closed for about 12 hours and 15 minutes, ever since police stopped a car that ran a toll booth. Alerts had been posted for that car, and then another car had pulled up behind that one after a woman in Georgia overheard three men discussing what sounded like plans for a terrorist attack in Miami. Those men are now being detained in Florida. They are not being called suspects.

Once again, we want to emphasize that. These men are being questioned by authorities. They are being detained. They have not been arrested. The first car has been cleared. Bomb technicians already did what they needed to do to secure the area and clear that car of any type of dangerous device. Now, what you're seeing live, courtesy of our affiliate WFOR are the bomb technicians approaching the second car here that was involved in this incident, checking out every part of the car. As you can see, trying to confirm the fact that, indeed, there are no explosive devices in this car.

Let's bring in our Kelli Arena once again, justice correspondent, standing by in D.C., she has been working her intelligence sources -- Kelli, what more do you know at this point, anything you want to add?

ARENA: Well, I think it is important to point out that there is no intelligence that led the bomb squad to believe that there were explosives aboard, it was actually the physical reaction of the bomb squad canines as they approached the vehicle, and there are a variety of reasons that those dogs may have reacted as they did. It could be nothing more than residue from hunting shells, you know, that were in -- a lot of hunters buy powder and they pack their own shells when they hunt, so that could be it.

Fireworks could make them react as they did. So it's not -- it is not definitive that there are, indeed, explosives of any kind or a activator of of any kind in this vehicle right now. But as we have heard, and it is a phrase I am starting to say in my sleep, Kyra, out of an abundance of caution, investigators are out there and making sure that this car is clean.

PHILLIPS: Absolutely, and also you brought us a lot of intel on the three men that are being detained, Kelli. They are not being called suspects. As a matter of fact, you have confirmed that these are medical students, that, what your sources tell you, were on their way to a medical conference in Miami, correct?

ARENA: That's right. That's right.

PHILLIPS: And basically the reason why we are carrying this live coverage, a number of reasons, it stemmed from a woman overhearing a conversation these men were having in a Shoney's restaurant in Georgia, a conversation -- as a matter of fact, I have some of her quotes here, Kelli, she was saying, Eunice Stone, rather, saying that "they scared me." She was sitting at the table with her son. She could overhear these men. According to her, the men appeared to be in their mid-20's, spoke English without an accent, but she said one of the men had a long beard and wore the type of cap that she said she had seen Muslims wear, and she said that she overheard them saying, "well, they think they are set on 9/11, wait until 9/13." She said she heard one of the men ask, "Do you think we enough to bring it down..."

ARENA: Right. Right.

PHILLIPS: Obviously, nowadays -- probably a year ago, we wouldn't have thought about this, but now we are all very attentive to comments like this...

ARENA: And we have been urged by U.S. officials every time they get in front of a television camera, you know, including the attorney general saying if you see or if you hear anything suspicious, you know, call your local law enforcement. You don't know, they may have information that you are unaware of, and this may fit into a larger puzzle. So -- and you see how seriously law enforcement reacts to such information, and how all of these protocols that have been set up post-9/11 are kicking in, across state lines and with various law enforcement agencies. In this situation, you have Customs, INS, FBI, state and local law enforcement, all involved in this situation as part of the joint terrorism task forces that are set up across the country to deal with just these types of incidents.

PHILLIPS: And Kelli, let me play Devils advocate for a moment here, OK? Just another end of the spectrum. It is possible, it is definitely a possibility that these were -- this could be a prank. These could have been guys trying to show off, trying to be funny, trying to get people irritated, see what kind of attention they could get.

ARENA: Absolutely. It's like the person who goes on the airplane and says, I have a bomb and they really don't. And there is all sorts of warnings never to do that, but you just don't know.

Again, we get back to motivation here. All the law enforcement has to go on is the fact that they have information from this woman who was interviewed. It was not like they took this information over the phone and said OK, great, thanks, see ya. No. They went to the site, they interviewed her, they made sure that she didn't have any motivation, or any apparent motivation, to make a story up.

PHILLIPS: And speaking of information, Kelli, I'm told Mark Potter, on the line with us now, has information to tell us.

Mark, go ahead.

POTTER: I am on the scene now and spoke with a bomb squad commander who's actually down by the cars, a little bit away from the cameras, and he said that now that they have cleared the first car of any suspicion of explosive devices, they are now concentrating on the second. They in that process now of taking items out of the car using the robot. A moment ago, they said they've gotten three or four items out of the car. And what they cannot get with the robot, they will have a technician go wearing a special suit go in to get.

And then the procedure after that will be a technician from a bomb squad specialist from the Miami-Dade Police Department will go and look over the material and determine as best he can whether any of them represent any threat. And what he cannot determine categorically by his own eye, they will then go under some sort of X-ray device to determine what it is. And this is a procedure that he says probably could take another couple of hours. They are going very slow.

They had a little bit of a delay in that the robot device itself broke down. They were having some technical problems, but it is OK now and back in service. So the procedure is underway.

The search is half over, and they are on to the next car. But it is a slow, tedious process. That is the way they are going to do it. The robot will get the first items. A human will get the rest. And then a specialist will eyeball what he or she can, and then they will put it under an X-ray device.

So it is going to take some time, and this highway is going to remain closed until they can determine that indeed these cars are both clear.

PHILLIPS: So Mark, let me ask a question. Since we are seeing live pictures here of the bomb technicians getting closer to the car -- they even did get close to the car, looked in the trunk -- does this mean that they have confirmed that there is no threat there, no threat of an explosive, because they have gotten close to the car, they have looked in the trunk? You see the bomb technician here going up to the trunk again, having no problem reaching into the trunk?

POTTER: Well, early on, they were saying -- this was hours ago -- that from a preliminary look at both cars, they did not think there was any threat at all, but they needed to confirm it, and they are still in that process. They have done that with the one car; now they are going to do it with this car.

The only device that they had any concern about was the one that tore apart earlier today, the one that turned out to be medical equipment that they broke apart with that water cannon-like device. But everything else, at least preliminarily and at first glance, appeared to be OK. So that maybe that explains the rather casual nature of the technicians out there -- and I don't mean to say "casual nature"; they are being very cautious, but the fact that they are walking up to the car, as you suggest, does suggest that indeed they don't really think that there is a huge threat here. If they did, they wouldn't be anywhere near that car. You're right.

PHILLIPS: I guess that's good news.

POTTER: It is, absolutely. And for the residences of this area who would like to get back on the highway, that is good news too, because this place is going to stay shut down until they are done. And again, the estimate that we were just given by the bomb squad commander from the state Fire Marshal's Office is it could be an hour or two more.

PHILLIPS: OK, and I am also told that we are going to hear from Governor Jeb Bush. He's going to be holding a news conference about 12:45 Eastern time. That's about 15, 20, 25 minutes away -- you know how those go: not always necessarily on time.

And while we wait for that, Mark, meanwhile, you got a chance to talk to, you said, the commander of the bomb squad. Is that correct?

POTTER: Yes, he's the bomb squad commander for the Florida state Fire Marshal's Office. They also have a regional group that he is involved with. And he is off to the side a little bit. He's not actually the one walking up to the car. I guess that is one of the perks of being a supervisor.

PHILLIPS: There you go. You don't have to get real up close. Exactly.

POTTER: Absolutely.

PHILLIPS: Did he mention to you, Mark, that one of the main reasons they are out here is because, Hey, our lives have changed since September 11 last year and we have to -- and when I say "we," I mean authorities -- for example, local bomb squads, federal and state bomb squads -- have to pay attention to threats like these?

POTTER: Oh, absolutely.

PHILLIPS: They just can't take any risks?

POTTER: No, they can't. And he is very categoric about that. He said that in this era, with this kind of information, they have to treat it this way. You had a conversation with Kelli, who talked about the same thing. And this gentleman here underscores that same point, that they have no choice when they get this kind of information. People here praise the woman in Georgia for what she said. They defend in full what they are doing. It's just a fact of life today that when you get this kind of information, suggesting the potential threat that this might represent, they have to go at whole time. And they have done it. They've got representatives here from the Florida Highway Patrol, county sheriff's department, local police department, they have a HAZMAT unit -- a hazardous materials unit here from Naples -- the FBI is here, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, I see the Red Cross is here. They have pulled out all the stops on this one to make sure.

And hopefully, we will have some answers shortly, at least on what's in the cars. The first car is clean. They're working on the second.

PHILLIPS: You were talking about pulling out all the stops. I've just received word here, I have some information that was handed to me, that a Delta Airlines flight bound from Miami had been diverted. I'm told that Flight 537 was diverted on the runway.

Are you talking with...

POTTER: No, a highway patrolman just walked by. He was talking to someone else, and he was loud, and that's it.

PHILLIPS: I thought if you were working information or had some type of in there for intel, we would bring it too

But Mark, I was mentioning you were talking about all stops had been pulled out, and evidently, it is starting to happen across the U.S. here, specifically when it comes to Miami. I am told that here in Atlanta, a Delta Airlines flight bound for Miami has been diverted. Flight 537 was diverted on the runway about 11:25 a.m. Eastern time here at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport. Two passengers were asked to leave the plane, but apparently, the problem had been resolved.

But it is interesting. I am wondering if we are going to see a domino affect as the incident goes down, Mark. If there will be a number of precautions taken whether you're flying into Miami, driving into Miami. Is it possible that Miami could be sort of on a heightened state of alert since the information coming out was that these cars were headed to Miami?

POTTER: I'm sure that that's going to be the case, and now with this incident involving the plane. The area was already under alert at the ports, at the Miami River, at the airports. This brought a heightened state of alert. Now this is just going to add to that. I'm certain that this concern is going to extend past today, and it is no surprise.

And again, don't forget, how could any of us forget the tie that Florida had to the September 11 events of last year. And we know that the flight training occurred here, many of the suspects involved in the attacks trained and lived here in the south Florida area. This area has been on alert since then, and it's going to be heightened and certainly is going to add to that. You're right.

PHILLIPS: Mark, as people are just tuning in and watching breaking news coverage -- you have been listening to mark potter at the scene.




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