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Authorities Detained Terror Suspects on Alligator Alley

Aired September 13, 2002 - 12:57   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We want to get the latest on the events on Interstate 75 in southern Florida. Two cars have been detained since early hours of this morning. It started with a tip in Georgia from a woman who told authorities she heard three men discussing a possible terrorist plot. Many hours later, one of the cars sped through a Florida toll booth and was stopped by police. The other car halted as well.
CNN's Mark Potter is in Collier County, Florida, to bring us the very latest -- Mark.


We are standing on the highway right now. Some of the officers in front of us, the scene beyond these officers here, they have been here for hours searching these cars, and that search continues.

Let me bring you up to speed on where we stand now. The first of the two cars was searched and cleared by the authorities on the scene. They went through it first with a first dog, and then officers looked at the car, and then they brought a robot in. Technicians brought the rest of the items out. They laid them all out. And then they cleared that scene, saying that the car has no sign, no residue, no anything suggesting an explosive device. That car was cleared and moved to the other side of the road.

Now they are concentrating on the second car. That search is underway. It took a little bit of time to get started with that search. They had some problems with the robot unit. We just saw the robot moving a moment ago, though, so it's back in action. Some of the items have been taken out of that car. And we're told that the procedure will be for the robot to do what it can, the technicians to come in, remove the rest. And then a technician, a specialist, from the Miami-Dade Police Department will come in to analyze visually the material and clear what he can and then an X-ray machine will be brought in to take care of the rest. There is also a machine, we are told, that has been brought in by the FBI to check for any radiation.

So far, the word here on the highway is that they have found nothing that would suggest any sort of explosive device.

A HAZMAT unit from Naples was here earlier. It also cleared the surrounding scene, saying that there was no evidence that that unit could detect.

Now, as to the three detainees, they are being held, we are told, in a van here. The way they are being treated has been described by a law enforcement supervisor from the state as very well. He said they are being kept in air conditioning, they are being fed, and they are not being charged as this investigation continues. There are a lot of questions still to be answered, specifically, who are these men, what were they doing, what's their background, the vehicle that they have, is it theirs, where did it come from, is there anybody that they were meeting in south Florida? There are a number of questions still to be answered.

But as to the situation here on the highway with the cars, we're looking at about another hour or two more of this investigation, of this search, before this scene can be cleared, or we get a final determination that there, indeed, is something to be concerned about. But right now, the word is that the scene is clear, at least with the first car. And it's looking like it might be that way, too, with the second, but we still have to wait and hear the final word from the authorities.

Back to you.

PHILLIPS: All right, Mark Potter, thanks so much.

Now, before we check in with Washington, let's remember that the federal government has placed the nation on a high state of alert. The alert was increased to the government's level orange on Tuesday, just ahead of the first anniversary of September 11.

CNN's Jeanne Meserve is in Washington now to tell us what she's hearing from there -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, we've seen a flurry of incidents like this since the threat level went up to orange, and officials say that's what they expected. Citizens, after all, have been asked to be vigilant. They are reporting things like this.

And security levels are way up in some places, some are suspicious and questionable activity is bound to be uncovered by law enforcement. Everything is going to be investigated thoroughly in this environment. And as the previous days have shown us, a lot is not going to pan out, but that's going to be the situation as long as we're on orange.

How long will we be on orange? The word from the Office of Homeland Security is that the country will be on orange for the immediate future, probably through next week. Intelligence is being constantly evaluated, and as Attorney General John Ashcroft indicated on Tuesday, that is what will determine the threat level.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: We'll constantly be reassessing and pursuing the leads that come from the kind of information we have received with a view toward the evaluation of where we are and at what level the risks exist.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MESERVE: Some experts in homeland security say it could be tricky for the administration to bring the threat level down, because it could cue terrorists that our guard is lower. But others say it has to come down at some point to maintain the credibility of the alert system.

Has the orange level made any difference? Well, clearly, it has in some places with stepped up police patrols of critical infrastructure and more screening of people and cargo. But in other places, it has not. This is a voluntary system with no clear-cut guidelines for state and local officials to follow.

And the president of the International Association of Police Chiefs says, he knows some of his members have done nothing in response to the elevated threat level. The National League of Cities confirms that, saying there are some cases where cities just didn't feel the alert was relevant to them, and other cases where the increased cost was a factor. It is expensive for localities to keep their security staffing up, which bring us back to the question: How long is this going to last?


PHILLIPS: That's a good question.

Now, Jeanne, of course, you have seen this story that we have been rolling on all morning, the situation out in Florida. A lot of people crediting this state of heightened of alert, because the response happened so quickly, and all of the agencies -- state and federal --responded to the scene to try and defuse or deescalate what seemed or could have been possibly a violent situation.

So, are you sort of hearing the same thing there in D.C. that because this state of alert, it's been elevated to high alert, that we're going to see reaction like this start to take place, and that agencies are taking possible threats like this very seriously?

MESERVE: Well, they have been taking them seriously. I think since last September 11, but certainly this week, things have ratcheted up an additional step.

One thing we are seeing in Florida that federal officials are very happy about is the communications flow and the response. They have been working very hard to make sure that information is flowing, not only down from Washington to local law enforcement, but from local law enforcement back up to the federal government. Here, you saw a unified response. You see local law enforcement, state law enforcement and also federal authorities in on the scene there. That's exactly the kind of cooperation they want to see taking place.

So, this is a proof to them, to some degree, that the system appears to be working. I believe you heard the governor of Florida saying that just a short time ago -- Kyra.




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