Friday, October 1, 2004

Feds puzzled by sheriff's terror alert

Contrary to Leis' warning, threat has not escalated

By Jennifer Edwards and Dan Horn
Enquirer staff writers

Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis issued a warning Thursday urging vigilance against possible terrorism, but FBI and homeland security officials said there was no intelligence about a new threat.

Leis e-mailed a letter to thousands of schools, businesses and shopping malls, warning them to be on guard. He said he sent the alert because of new information about a possible terror attack in the Midwest before the Nov. 2 election.

FBI and homeland security officials said they were not consulted before Leis sent the letter, which also was signed by Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher, and they emphasized that terror alerts should be handled by them.

Although federal authorities said the sheriff's letter was right to urge vigilance, they said concern about a possible strike before the election is based on the same intelligence that has been available for months.

"There's been information out there for a while that there could be problems before the election," said Jim Turgal, supervisor of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Cincinnati.

"Is there any new, specific information out there? No, there is not."

He also noted that there was no specific threat against the Midwest or the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area.

He also noted that the FBI is the lead law enforcement agency on terror issues, and that anyone with information about possible terrorist activity should contact the agency.

But in the letter, Leis and Streicher urged residents to contact the sheriff's organized-crime division, police communications or Hamilton County's Terrorism Early Warning Group.

"The only thing they left out was us," Turgal said. "We're in this together."

No rift

Despite the confusion over the letter, Turgal said local and federal authorities have a good relationship and would continue to share information and work closely on terror-related issues.

Leis also denied a rift between the two agencies. Streicher did not respond to interview requests.

The sheriff said he felt compelled to send the letter because of recent conversations with federal authorities and information via the Internet about possible terrorist strikes before the election. He said the information he received about terrorism justified an immediate response.

"This is a rare step," Leis said. "I've never witnessed anything like this before. It's not something we are doing lightly. It's something we gave a lot of consideration before we did it.

"There is a strong indication that a terrorist attack will occur before the election. We are concerned about it happening in the Middle West."

Trying to stay ahead

In the letter, addressed to "the citizens of Greater Cincinnati," Leis and Streicher urged people to be alert to suspicious activity, such as people photographing locations, drawing maps or leaving packages unattended.

Police Lt. Kurt Byrd, Streicher's spokesman, said the goal of the letter was to make the public aware of the risks as the election approaches.

"It's strictly because we want to be ahead of the curve," Byrd said.

The sheriff said he would send extra patrols, starting today, into shopping malls, near schools and in neighborhoods throughout the county.

Leis said he met Thursday with Hamilton County Administrator David Krings and warned him the sheriff's office needs more money for overtime to pay for stepped-up patrols before and during the election.

Law-enforcement officials in other counties said they have no plans to respond to the terrorist threat the way Leis and Streicher did Thursday.

"Unless we receive something more specific, we have no present plans to have a mass mailing regarding terrorism to our citizens," Clermont County Sheriff A.J. Rodenberg said.

Although federal authorities usually take the lead in terror alerts, Leis said he took it upon himself to send the letter because he and Streicher were concerned about the information they had received from federal authorities.

"We have what we consider strong information," Leis said.

Last of big events

While it might be strong, homeland security officials say the information is not new. Instead, they said, it is based on intelligence gathered earlier this year about potential strikes before the election or other big events.

"There's nothing new here," said Michael Snowden, project manager for Homeland Security in Hamilton County and a former Cincinnati police chief. But Snowden said the letter correctly warns of the terrorist threat and the need for increased diligence.

"Now is the time people need to be acutely aware of what's happening," Snowden said. "People are going to have to be more alert."

Turgal said more diligence is needed now because the intelligence about a possible terror strike indicated earlier that several big events - from the national political conventions to the Olympics - could be targeted.

The Nov. 2 election is the only one of those events remaining this year.

"This is the last major event," Turgal said.

"This is the last opportunity."

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