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Three Arrested in Plot to Bomb New York City Tunnels

July 7, 2006 at 6:10 PM EST
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: The announcement today that federal authorities had foiled an explosives attack on the rail tunnels linking Manhattan and New Jersey followed a nearly year-long investigation.

A central member of the team that uncovered the plot joins us now, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

Commissioner, can we start with the planned attack itself? What did these people plan to do, and how did they plan to do it?

RAYMOND KELLY, New York City Police Commissioner: Well, I can’t be too specific on the means and methods they were talking about.

This investigation is still going on. This is classified information here. And if you get too specific, it may be giving up sources as far as this investigation is concerned.

But I think, suffice to say that they looked to, in some, way, shape or form, open up the water — walls holding water back, that would then go into the PATH tunnels that go under the Hudson River, actually in two locations, both in Lower Manhattan and up on 34th Street. And this water would also, by penetrating those tunnels, go into the New York subway system as well.

RAY SUAREZ: The man said to be the ringleader, Assem Hammoud, is in custody in Lebanon. Is he cooperating with the investigation?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, he is talking to the Lebanese authorities. They have been very cooperative with the FBI, and receiving information from him.

Now, the Lebanese are putting out another statement, possibly tomorrow. And we will see more specific information as to what he’s come forward with. But, in essence, information is being provided by this individual, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: As far as you have been able to determine, how many people had he drawn into the plan?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, as was mentioned today, there are eight identified people in this plot. Three of them are in custody. There may be others. The investigation, as I say, is still going forward. Others who are in contact with these eight primary individuals — but, right now, eight clearly identified.

RAY SUAREZ: Are the people who are in custody, the three you mentioned, are they in the United States?

RAYMOND KELLY: They are not in the United States, no.

RAY SUAREZ: And the others, to round out the eight, are they actively being tracked? Do you know where they are?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, the others are in countries overseas. And they are — their whereabouts are known. And they’re being observed.

RAY SUAREZ: As far as you’re able to determine, did any of the eight, at any time, enter the United States?

RAYMOND KELLY: No. At this time, it appears that none of them, to the best of our knowledge, have been in the United States.

Rushed into curbing the plot

Raymond Kelly
New York City Police Dept. Commissioner
This was still very much in the planning phase. Nothing of an operational nature had gone forward. They had not obtained, again, to the best of our knowledge, the means to go forward with actually executing this plan.

RAY SUAREZ: As far as you are able to tell me, how far had this plan progressed? For instance, did Hammoud ever possess the wherewithal to carry out the attack?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, as we said today, this was still very much in the planning phase. Nothing of an operational nature had gone forward. They had not obtained, again, to the best of our knowledge, the means to go forward with actually executing this plan.

RAY SUAREZ: When you think you're on to something like this, and you are watching it develop, and you're keeping these people under surveillance, how do you make the decision about when to roll it up, because isn't there almost a temptation to continue to watch it germinate, in the hopes of getting even more suspects and even more information?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, certainly, this case had to be announced prematurely.

As Mark Mershon of the FBI said today, we certainly didn't want to make this announcement today. Because the information went forward, because it was leaked, it appeared in a major newspaper, and because the Lebanese were also moving forward in their own judicial system, the information was put forward today.

But, clearly, the investigators wanted to keep this investigation going, but, because of the leak, simply could no longer do that.

RAY SUAREZ: Was it a problem for you? Did it hurt anything that was ongoing, to have that appear in The New York Daily News and other papers?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, certainly.

As I say, we wanted to -- we, being the investigators, the FBI, the joint terrorist task force -- wanted this investigation to go further. We wanted to see if there are other people involved, see what methods and means would have been at least attempted to be obtained to carry out this plot.

It was planned, as was said today, for the fall of this year. So, we wanted to go a little further before actually wrapping it up.

RAY SUAREZ: Assem Hammoud and the others that are in custody, will they continue to be held overseas? Will they be charged by the countries that hold them? And, if so, who will try them?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, these are all very good questions that I don't think we're able to answer specifically at this time, because they are in other countries.

It depends on their own judicial system. It depends on their relationships or treaties with the United States. So, these are answers that just can't be given right now. Again, as I said, the case was announced, certainly, prior to when we wanted to announce it.

It's still a success story. It still was a plot that was germinating overseas, aimed at doing significant damage here. So, I think the FBI is to be commended here. But it was announced, unfortunately, prematurely.

Listening in on al-Qaida

Raymond Kelly
New York City Police Dept. Commissioner
The investigation had been going on for well over a year. And it began and led to other individuals, led to other countries... But, initially, it started with FBI intelligence information about transmissions on the Internet.

RAY SUAREZ: How did it first come to your attention that a group of individuals was thinking about attacking a target in your city?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, this is information that was gleaned through intelligence sources that the FBI had contact with.

The investigation had been going on for well over a year. And it began and led to other individuals, led to other countries. And perhaps it may have even gone further, as I say. But, initially, it started with FBI intelligence information about transmissions on the Internet.

RAY SUAREZ: So, they were talking to each other using their computers?

RAYMOND KELLY: That's correct, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, when a tip like that, when a flag like that is raised, and it involves a target in New York City, at what point does the New York City Police Department get involved with something that starts with the FBI? How does that work?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, we are members of the joint terrorist task force. We have over 120 investigators working here in New York with the FBI. So, we're embedded, you might say, and very much involved in these types of investigations.

So, we're involved from the get-go. We're kept briefed. I'm certainly kept briefed. Our investigators are working on cases such as this. So, we get notified right away.

RAY SUAREZ: And was any credible connection with al-Qaida or known terrorist organizations elsewhere in the world turned up as part of this investigation?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, I think that's to be determined.

Again, al-Qaida is, in many ways, a -- you know, a philosophy or an inspiration these days. It's not the -- you know, a tightly-knit organization that perhaps it once was. So, that's going to be certainly a focus of this investigation.

Keeping New York City safe

Raymond Kelly
New York City Police Dept. Commissioner
We can't guarantee absolute safety. But I think we're doing everything that we reasonably can do to protect the system, protect the city. You know, you know, you can't live your life constantly worrying about the possibility of an attack.

RAY SUAREZ: Today was the one-year anniversary of the London bombings. Was there any evidence of that in New York City?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, we significantly increased our police resources on the transit system today, because, in fact, it was the anniversary of the bombings in London.

We kept our what we call our first platoon, our officers that work from midnight to 8:00 in the morning, we kept them and had them patrol our transit system. We used our heavily-armed Hercules teams, sent them to transit locations. Our critical response vehicles also covered our transit system.

We have a very large subway system; 4.5 million people travel on that system every day, 468 stations, over 600 miles of track. So, obviously, it's always a concern to us. But, today, we wanted to make certain that we had additional coverage. And that's precisely what we did.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, the mayor reassured New Yorkers that they should go about their business and enjoy their city. The secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff said it was never a concern that this plot would actually be executed.

How do you balance between due caution and proper care, and going about your business and having a good time, when we know that such places as public transit can be a target?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, we're doing an awful lot, as a municipality, as a police department.

We spend about $200 million a year on our counterterrorism initiatives. There are no guarantees. Certainly, transit systems, rail systems have been targeted. Close to 50 percent of all terrorist targets in the last five years have been transportation systems.

So, we can't guarantee absolute safety. But I think we're doing everything that we reasonably can do to protect the system, protect the city. You know, you know, you can't live your life constantly worrying about the possibility of an attack. You have to let the professionals do their job.

And, as I say, I think we're doing everything that we reasonably can do to protect New Yorkers.

RAY SUAREZ: Commissioner Raymond Kelly of the NYPD -- thanks a lot, Commissioner.

RAYMOND KELLY: Thank you, Ray.