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FBI Issues Lookout Alert for Five Men of Arab Descent

Aired December 29, 2002 - 17:31   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: The FBI says it is looking for five men of Arab ancestry who may be the U.S. illegally. CNN's Jeanne Meserve is in Washington and she has more on this afternoon's announcement -- Jeanne.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They're looking for them, Fredricka, and they want the public's help. And so those names and pictures have now been posted on the FBI Web site. Every individual in the country is being asked to look at that, and if you have any information about these men, you're asked to please exact your local FBI office. These names turned up in the course of an investigation. One source tells me that there were multiple investigation in which these names cropped up, some of them domestic, some of them international. However, an administration source tells me that it's his belief that they're names turned up in one investigation, but they do believe that may be threads to other investigations. And so they want to talk to these individuals, not only about what they are doing in the United States, but what they might know about ongoing investigations into possible terrorism.

The belief is that these individuals may have crossed into this country on or about the 24th of December, and that they may possibly have come in from over the border from Canada. It is not exactly known where on that border they might have crossed or how they might have crossed, and so a number of different federal agencies are now involved in this investigation, not only the FBI and Homeland Security agencies but the INS, the Customs Service, and the Transportation Security Administration.

As to how serious this threat is, one administration official tells me, I think it's impossible to say what they may or may not be up to and how imminent that may or may not be; however, there's clearly a significant concern about these individuals, because the FBI, on a Sunday afternoon, has put this information up on the Web site. They have gone beyond their own governmental resources and are now asking for the public and local law enforcement all across the country to please aid in this effort to find these five individuals -- Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: And Jeanne, in the last few minutes that you been able to do some reporting, did any of your sources tell you anything about whether they have a stronger belief now as to whether these five individuals are still together or whether they have split up or gone to separate locations across the states?

MESERVE: Fredricka, I have still not been able to determine that fact. I am told, however, that they were not being tracked. That had been raised as one possibility. An administration official is telling me, no, they were not being tracked. But I do not know that they came across the country or there is a belief that they came into the country individually or as a group.

WHITFIELD: Is much being said at this juncture about how it was detected that these individuals may have crossed some border into the U.S.?

MESERVE: These are the sorts of questions, Fredricka that federal officials guard very closely. They do not want to compromise any ongoing investigations, and so they're very reluctant to hand out many specifics about the sources of the information and the exact content of the information they may have received. So I don't have an answer to that question at this point.

WHITFIELD: And because it is still very early in this investigation, given that they believe that these individuals may have crossed the border or entered the U.S. illegally on Christmas eve, are sources saying anything about why they believe it's so important to mobilize the country in this way with this kind of information?

MESERVE: They aren't saying anything specific about that. Just what I mentioned earlier, that there is apparently significant concern about these individuals, why they're here, what they might be up to. There is absolutely nothing at this point that indicates they have done anything illegal apart from apparently coming into the country illegally. But investigators do want to know more, they want to sit down and talk to these individuals about why they're here, also about what they may know about terrorism as a whole.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks, Jeanne, appreciate it.

Now our security analyst Kelly McCann is on the telephone with us. Once again, if you could hear me okay, Kelly. How do you assess this kind of information, this very broken information that's coming out from the FBI right now and posted on their Web site,, to try to get the nation involved, whether it be law enforcement agencies or individuals.

KELLY MCCANN, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: Well, first of all, of course, you called it right, information, because, you know, we're not getting the intelligence. There should be some intelligence out there, or they wouldn't be looking for these people on a nationwide basis right now. But the interesting thing to know would be the method of crossing the border and where they crossed the border. In other words, have they produced paperwork -- documents that is been scrutinized with much greater degree than previously. It would be less of a concern than if they perhaps walked across the border, and they got that information through ongoing investigations, et cetera, which would mean that they meant to clandestinely, or covertly, come into the country at a time of the New Year's celebration, in the northeast.

So I mean, that would add a little bit more weight to what this could mean. WHITFIELD: And, of course, Kelly, we all have to be very careful about how we try assess this information, because all we know now is that the FBI has issued this alert for these five individuals and these photographs and names that they may be using. Jeanne's sources are telling her that our viewers ought to know as well that there may be different names associated with these individuals. But what's unclear at this juncture, what, if anything, these individuals may have done to also raise suspicion.

MCCANN: Absolutely. And I don't think it's appropriate to make any kind of leap at all. I mean, whether this is just a case of disaffected people coming across the border or in fact whether they're in motion to execute a plan. People simply don't know. The point of interest is that these five were singled out, out of probably scores of people who illegally made entry into the United States this past week, because it happens. Our borders are porous. But these five have surfaced as people of interest.

WHITFIELD: But really, are our borders porous at this juncture, knowing we're at this heightened state of alert and have been at least for a year now?

MCCANN: Of course. If you look at the land mass -- the land mass area, it's almost an impossibility unless you go to seismic intrusion devices and things like that to specifically look at the length of the border and say, yes, a person crossed, let's go find that person. I mean, the statistics are overwhelming, when you talk to the Border Patrol agents who are up against this daily. So again, if you think of the northern border with Canada, we have very defined entry points, but there is an amazing amount of forested area that is simply too difficult to cover, given the conditions that we have right now. So, absolutely, they are not airtight.

WHITFIELD: And I've asked everybody this question, Kelly, and I'll ask you as well. How concerned are you or how alarming do you find that this kind of information, this very kind of very public now, investigation, is ongoing at a time when so many are traveling, still coming and going for the holidays and preparing for New Year's celebrations as you alluded to just moments ago.

MCCANN: You know, the thing is that we're in a different era now, and it's hard to turn back the hands of time. It just doesn't work. We know that there are people out there who would really, really would like to perform or execute a mission that would really significantly hurt us. Given that, I think we have to be concerned. But you still have to go about your life, because the ability for an individual person to affect that one way or another is really kind of minimal. So, I mean, you really do hand it to the bad guys who would do us wrong if you totally change your plans or make yourself feel embattled. It's a difficult situation, especially against the backdrop of Iraq and North Korea and all these other things going on. People's shoulders are slumped right now.

WHITFIELD: And of course, Kelly, just to underscore the point, we still are unclear as to what, if anything, these individuals of middle eastern decent are being associated with, except that the FBI is saying that they suspect that these individuals -- and you're looking at the names and their birth dates right now -- may have entered the U.S. illegally somewhere around Christmas. Kelly McCann, thank you very much for joining us on the telephone. And of course we are going to continue to keep tabs on this story and do as much reporting as we can to give you updated information on this story.

We are going to take a short break for now. We will be right back.


WHITFIELD: Welcome back. We're going to continue our ongoing coverage of the FBI's now nationwide search now for five individuals being described as middle eastern decent, that are believed to have entered the U.S. illegally somewhere around Christmas eve. On the telephone with us now, we have an expert, hopefully, to give us your assessment on it. May I ask your name, sir?

L. PAUL BREMER, AMBASSADOR-AT-LARGE: Yes, it is Ambassador L. Paul Bremer.

WHITFIELD: OK. All right. What -- how are you assessing this at this juncture? Do you find this to be helpful information that the public would be able to assist and aid in this ongoing search? Is this enough information in which to do that?

BREMER: Well, it certainly is, I think, a significant announcement. It's the first one with this kind of detail we've had since 9/11. And the fact that they've got names, or at least aliases and apparently pictures of these guys, indicates that the FBI is certainly taking the source of information quite seriously, where ever it was. And yes, sure, if you can get the pictures of the people up on the web and on the television, that can help.

WHITFIELD: Very little information is being said about these individuals. Only that there are five of them, we don't know if they continue to be together as a group for if they've dispersed throughout the country or even where they may have entered. They're obviously of great concern that the investigators are willing to say that these names, or these individuals, have been part of ongoing investigations domestically and abroad. Is that code language for something else? How do you interpret that?

BREMER: Well, I think it's a little hard to interpret it. I think the fact -- the basic fact the FBI has put out this alert suggests that they take it seriously, that they've got some kind of information, maybe from some of the prisoners that we've been interrogating in Cuba and elsewhere, some kind of a leak out of the terrorist organization with names, which allowed them to get pictures, that suggests that they have may applied for visas or we have passport photos from the countries they are from. There's obviously a significant amount of investigation that's already been done before they put out this alert.

WHITFIELD: Yes, it seems like in order to have these photographs, or even these names, someone has to have been witness to their alleged activity or somehow have some recording of their alleged activity.

BREMER: That's right. These guys have -- if they are indeed terrorists, have been blown by some other terrorist. Some other terrorist has said, you know, go look for these five guys and here are their names, and by the way, here are...


WHITFIELD: You said that we still don't know if it has anything to do with terrorism. I mean...

BREMER: Well...

WHITFIELD: ... that is still...


WHITFIELD: ... term we have to use very cautiously, right?

BREMER: Well, yes, though I think the way the FBI is looking for these guys is probably not involved with a bank robbery. I think we can assume it is terrorism. Whether they are terrorists or not, obviously the FBI wants to find out, and by putting out their pictures, they certainly will help if these guys are in the U.S., help people find them. This is a standard police technique that police use all the time, putting out pictures of the most wanted or people they want to talk to. So I think this is undoubtedly a prudent measure by the FBI, assuming that the underlying intelligence is valid.

WHITFIELD: And when civilians see this kind of information and try to process it and then find themselves trying to be helpful in the ongoing investigation, does it concern you that there's going to be an awful lot of misidentification of individuals and that, instead, will maybe slow down the investigation as opposed to helping to speed it up?

BREMER: You know, it is a calculated risk the police departments and law enforcement agencies take all the time, every day, how much information to put out, whether it helps or hinders. I think given the dangerous time we're in now with al-Qaeda trying to find ways to attack us again, with the fact that we know they've had sleepers -- you know, terrorists undercover here in the United States, I think it's prudent to take a chance to say, well, this may lead to more leads than we can deal with, the FBI might say, but on the whole, it seems to be a good idea, assuming the intelligence underlying it is good, this is probably a prudent thing for them to do.

WHITFIELD: Now I would imagine this information, while it is very helpful for the public to know it also means that it might send a lot of folks into the category of being rather nervous, especially as we enter yet another, I guess, period of traveling, as people get ready to locate themselves for New Year's celebrations, et cetera, and now with the nation's airports now stepping up their searches of bags yet one more notch now, all of this being coupled together, I would imagine, might make for yet a lot of nervous travelers. BREMER: That's possible. I think in a way we should be a bit nervous. We are at war, after all, not a war we chose but a war that was declared on us by these extremists. And the fact that we haven't had a major attack in 15 months in the U.S. basically doesn't tell you anything. Al-Qaeda has been able to mount attacks as far apart as 17 or 18 months in the past against us. So I think we have to be very prudent. And I'm not saying we should be scared, but we should be prudent.

WHITFIELD: All right. L. Paul Bremer, thank you very much for joining us. And once again, for those of you who would like more information kind of right at your fingertips, you can go to, where they have the photographs of the five men of middle eastern decent, that they are continuing to look for now, and asking that anyone with any information either call the nearest FBI office or perhaps any one of 18,000 local and state law enforcement agencies that are also being informed of this ongoing investigation.


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