Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2019

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Debate over LV terrorism allegation intensifies

Metro Police and Las Vegas FBI officials Tuesday called charges that they turned a blind eye to a potential terrorism threat categorically untrue.

Police and FBI officials said there was nothing on two videotapes found in the possession of alleged terrorists that made them think there was a terrorism threat.

"The videos did not depict information that Las Vegas was specifically threatened," said Metro Undersheriff Doug Gillespie, responding to allegations by an assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit who said Las Vegas law enforcement dismissed the tapes. "These videos were characterized as tourist videos. There was no corroborating information that indicated that Las Vegas was the target of a specific terrorist event."

That assessment, according to Gillespie and Las Vegas FBI Special Agent Dave Nanz, was made in September 2002 -- six months before an FBI agent from Detroit visited the hotels captured in the videotapes to gather information for the prosecution of four suspected terrorists in Detroit.

Gillespie and Nanz said Tuesday that this timeline is important because it refutes prior published reports this week that stated that local law enforcement authorities and casinos ignored terrorist warnings from the federal government.

To the contrary, Gillespie said that local authorities acted promptly when they learned of the two videotapes and then scrutinized them before determining that they represented no threat to Las Vegas.

Richard Convertino, assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit who is under fire for his handling of a high-profile terrorism trial, has charged that Las Vegas officials dismissed the two videotapes.

A memo obtained by the Associated Press said FBI Agent Paul George went to Las Vegas to share information about the tapes with local officials in March 2003 -- a month before the trial of four alleged terrorists in Detroit.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Corbett of Detroit said only two Metro officers showed up and said it was "a matter of conjecture" why no one else attended.

In an undated e-mail obtained by the Associated Press, Convertino tells Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Lever in Las Vegas to take the tapes seriously, saying she had "stated concerns that the mayor of Las Vegas, the local sheriff and others believe that our indictment may temporarily have a deleterious effect on the Las Vegas tourism industry."

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has vigorously denied the reports and U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden denied the allegations in a statement released this morning.

"Media reports implying a federal prosecutor in Las Vegas stated that the mayor, sheriff or other public officials said that the release of the videotape used in the Detroit terror trial would have a negative effect on the economy or tourism is inaccurate," Bogden said. "Also untrue are media reports alleging that Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino pleaded with Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Lever to take the video seriously."

Special Agent Todd Palmer, a spokesman for the Las Vegas office of the FBI, said that Lever was told by local FBI officials that the footage in the videos posed no credible threat to Las Vegas when the tapes were viewed in September 2002.

"Sharon works very closely with the Joint Terrorism Task Force as a liaison to to the U.S. Attorney's office, and does an excellent job," Palmer said. "We have no complaints about her work."

The Detroit News reported last year that George testified in April 2003 in the trial of four suspected terrorists in U.S. District Court in Detroit that he had come to Las Vegas in March 2003 to brief local law enforcement and resort officials about the alleged threats posed by the defendants.

Gillespie and Nanz called the reports that George came to warn officials "inaccurate," especially considering by then, local officials had reviewed the tapes six months prior.

"George came to Las Vegas and met with a Metro officer and a sergeant on the Joint Terrorism Task Force and local FBI officials," Nanz said. "He wanted to get the lay of the land. Basically he wanted to go around town and see the casinos that were included on the tapes, and the Metro officers took him around."

Two videotapes, one from Detroit and one from Spain, were sent to Las Vegas in September 2002 for review. Both videos showed scenes of Strip hotels.

Local law enforcement authorities determined that the tapes, made in 1997 and 1999, did not represent any credible threat to the city.

Metro Police take issue with the allegations made by Convertino and Corbett that local law enforcement turned a deaf ear to possible terrorist threats.

Gillespie said Metro Police, led by then-Sheriff Jerry Keller, were riled that it took the unsealing of the indictments against the four terrorists in late August 2002 for Metro to learn that the prosecution planned to use a videotape that showed the MGM Grand, New York-New York and Excalibur casinos.

That 90-minute tape was confiscated by federal agents in a Sept. 17, 2001, raid of a Detroit apartment and was later entered into evidence as part of the prosecution of the four terrorist suspects.

An intelligence source familiar with the Detroit investigation said that the tape depicted Arab teens aged 14 to 16 who were accompanied by adults to Las Vegas. That video, shot in March 1999, also included scenes of New York City, including the World Trade Center, which was destroyed during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

During one portion of the tape, one of the teens criticized a golden dome in one of the casinos as sacrilege, since it reminded the youth of a holy shrine in the Middle East, the source said.

"It looked like a tourist video," the source said. "It did not have the type of detail you would expect to see in a terrorist tape, such as entrances and exits, parking garages and underground facilities. If you wanted to get the information seen on that videotape, you could have gotten that much information and more on the Internet."

Gillespie said that when Metro learned about this first videotape it immediately asked the FBI in Las Vegas to get a copy from their counterparts in Detroit. That copy arrived in Las Vegas in early September 2002 and was viewed by members of the FBI, Metro Police and casino security chiefs of the resorts depicted in the videotape.

"This shows that we were doing our jobs," Gillespie said.

Within weeks of viewing that videotape, Gillespie said Metro caught wind of a second videotape that had also come to the attention of the prosecutors in Detroit. That tape was not admitted into evidence at the trial because it is classified and significant bureaucratic hurdles stood in the way.

That second video, according to the intelligence source, was shot in 1997 and was confiscated in Spain sometime after September 2001 by Spanish authorities pursuing an alleged al-Qaida cell in that European country. That tape, which was turned over to the FBI in Washington and remains classified, depicts two Arab adults and the Strip hotels seen in the first videotape plus other local casinos. At one point, according to the Associated Press, the men in the tape made a casual reference to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Gillespie said a copy of this video was also viewed by the local FBI, Metro and resort security chiefs later in September 2002. The law enforcement authorities and casino security chiefs concluded, as they did with the Detroit videotape, that there were no "credible" terrorist threats against Las Vegas, based on what they had seen.

But the intelligence source familiar with the Detroit case said the FBI in Washington could have delivered this tape to Las Vegas sooner than it did.

"It sounds to me like it was an administrative error of the FBI in Washington not getting the information to the local FBI quickly enough," former Nevada homeland security chief Jerry Bussell said. "You have to let the first responders get as much information as soon as you can."

Yvette Monet, a spokeswoman for MGM Mirage, owner of MGM Grand and New York-New York, said that security officials with the company did watch the tapes at the local FBI office in September 2002. She said company officials did not watch any tapes with George, the Detroit FBI agent, because they had already seen the footage.

Bussell said he had been briefed in 2002 by an FBI agent in Las Vegas about the Detroit videotape but he was not aware of the tape confiscated in Spain.

The Detroit trial resulted in the convictions of Ahmed Hannan, for conspiracy to engage in fraud and misuse of visas, and fellow Moroccans Karim Koubriti and Abdel-ilah Elmardoudi, for providing material support or resources to terrorists. The fourth defendant, Algerian Farouk Ali-Haimoud, was acquitted of providing support to terrorists.

U.S. District Judge Gerald E. Rosen continues to preside over the case because of an investigation by the FBI's public integrity section into allegations that the prosecution withheld evidence from defense lawyers or leaked sensitive information.

The defense has since asked Rosen to overturn the verdicts. Rosen has not ruled on the motion, and the three convicted of crimes have yet to be sentenced.

Local FBI and Metro officials were stunned when they heard of testimony from a key government witness, Youssef Hmimssa, who testified that defendant Hannan wanted to attack Las Vegas, calling it the "City of Satan" because Arabs had engaged in sinful activity in the city.

Bill Young, who became sheriff in 2003, sent two of his officers to attend the trial. During a visit to Washington in May 2003, weeks before the convictions were handed down, Young received a personal apology from FBI director Robert Mueller because the federal authorities had failed to give Las Vegas law enforcement officials sufficient information about the terrorist threats against Las Vegas that were alleged in the trial.

Young is on vacation and was not immediately available for comment. But he told the Las Vegas Sun after his 2003 meeting with Mueller that he came away convinced that there would be no repeat of the communication breakdown between federal and local law enforcement authorities.

"They communicated to me that it shouldn't have gone down that way, and we should've given a heads-up so we could have been prepared," Young said in June 2003.

After spending much of Tuesday giving television interviews to the national media, Goodman did get a phone call from Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Tuesday to discuss the controversy, a spokesman said.

Goodman said through a spokesperson this morning that he talked to Ridge twice on Tuesday, but said the conversation was private.

Requests for comment from the FBI in Detroit and from the U.S. Attorney's office in that city were denied on Tuesday.

Convertino alleges that the FBI's probe into the case is in retaliation for his recent cooperation with Congress.

According to a Justice Department spokesman, Convertino, who has filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department, remains a federal employee but has since been transferred to a congressional assignment at the request of Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. Grassley is a critic of the FBI and its handling of whistleblowers.

Grassley's office said he work on the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, which the senator chairs, as a "detailee."

Spokesmen for both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department in Washington said they believe communication between federal and local authorities has greatly improved since the homeland security department was formed in January 2003.

Las Vegas, like most of the nation, remains on yellow alert, which is an elevated threat of terrorism.

"We have no specific credible intelligence information indicating any imminent threat that al-Qaida is targeting Las Vegas at this time," homeland security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.

He said the communication upgrades in the past 18 months include a secure Web site that allows his department to share information on specific threats with local law enforcement agencies. He also pointed to the cooperation his department gave last December when it sent representatives to Las Vegas to discuss details with local law enforcement officials about a suspected al-Qaida holiday threat involving Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington.

Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo, like Roehrkasse, declined comment on whether either of the two federal agencies would investigate the Las Vegas video flap. Corallo said "information sharing has been dramatically improved with state and local police in Nevada since 9/11."

Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev. -- a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee and its possible next leader now that committee chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., has been tapped by President Bush to head the CIA -- said officials need to get to the bottom of what went down in the communication with federal authorities. Gibbons said that perhaps a change in policy is necessary to ensure that local officials clearly are notified by federal authorities of potential threats to their communities' safety.

"This (incident) does not place Las Vegas at any greater level of threat than before," Gibbons said. "We knew they (terrorists) were interested in Las Vegas long ago."

Gibbons, who has seen just short snips of the videotape on TV news reports, called the footage "very touristy."

"However, that's the way terrorists oftentimes do their surveillance -- by mixing in the pertinent information in a tourist tape environment," he said.

The apparent lack of communication between local authorities and federal authorities concerns Gibbons.

"We need to be concerned when there is a discrepency in information that is important for policy decisions to be made at federal and local levels," he said, noting that before 9/11 federal authorities were reluctant to share information that would jeopardize their cases.

"Now such information must be shared with our community leaders and police so they can decide how to react. That decision cannot be made in Washington, D.C.," he said.

Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority President Rossi Ralenkotter said that while there have been no credible terrorist threats, the casino and the tourism industry wouldn't sit on any information, as has been alleged.

"Our industry's credibility is on the line and we would not jeopardize our credibility with consumers by responding that way," Ralenkotter said. "We want the world to know (about potential dangers) and share with it that information."

LVCVA chairman Jim Gibson, who also is mayor of Henderson, said if "we ever do have information of a specific and credible threat, we will share it -- even if it means visitors decide to stay home as a result."

Gibson said the current incident "is at least the fourth time since Sept. 11" that Las Vegas has been the focus of a media frenzy based "more on rumor than fact."

"These reports serve only to engender fear among our visitors and the thousands of people who work and live here," he said.

Clark County Emergency Manager Jim O'Brien said the resorts participate in high-profile public exercises that not only acknowledge the potential of a credible terrorism threat but also have worked hand-in-hand with 36 local emergency preparedness groups to be ready to respond to it.

"The resorts are taking security efforts very seriously," O'Brien said. "We have conducted exercises with several properties -- most notably the MGM and Bellagio. We have had huge training sessions."

He said there will be four exercises this fall downtown and on the Strip.

Last year, Clark County was host to one of the largest and most highly publicized terrorism training exercises since the 9/11 attacks, Operation Determined Promise, which simulated the release of bubonic plague on the Strip, definitely not a subject that would send tourists flocking to Las Vegas.

Las Vegas Emergency Manager Tim McAndrew said downtown hotel security forces work closely with city emergency management officials.

Neither said they had heard of the two videotapes before the first reports surfaced last year, but said that with their relationships with others in emergency services, they're confident they would have.

"This incident defies logic," McAndrew said. "Something is amiss with this whole story about how this went down."

Sun reporter Cy Ryan contributed to this story.