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10/8/2005

Subway threat puzzle: When local officials, feds disagree
By MARK SHERMAN
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON- It's an unsettling problem for the public: what to think when the federal government says a scary-sounding terror threat isn't anything to worry about but local officials say it is.


The New York City subway threat was the latest example of mixed signals.

For a second day Friday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and federal officials offered different takes on the seriousness of a threat _ picked up by U.S. authorities in Iraq _ that bombs would be placed on the subway.

The case illustrates the difficult balancing act officials face in a post-Sept. 11 world, determining when the public needs to know about a threat and when disclosure will cause unnecessary unease. Indeed, federal officials have been criticized in the past for raising the terror alert on what turned out to be questionable grounds.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan stood by the decision of Homeland Security Department officials to keep the subway threat private.

"In this case, we notified New York City officials early on of the intelligence information that we had received. And while it is specific, you heard our homeland security officials say it is of doubtful credibility," he said.

Bloomberg had these factors to consider: It was the first specific plot against the subways, and it came three months after suicide bombers struck London's mass transit system and just a few days after terror blasts in Bali.

"Look, it is very different being an analyst in Washington looking at data as opposed to being here in New York where you have to take responsibility to protect people's lives," Bloomberg said, defending his decision to make the threat public.

The FBI's top official in New York stood with the mayor at Thursday's announcement. And though Mark Mershon quickly noted that the information was uncorroborated, his presence at the news conference when FBI headquarters was not commenting publicly and Homeland Security officials were playing down the threat added to the confusion.

Democrats contended the Bush administration played up terror threats in the months before the election to curry support. But it hasn't always been federal officials who have sounded the alarm for reasons that turned out to be unnecessary.

Former California Gov. Gray Davis was heavily criticized in November 2001 for revealing a threat to West Coast bridges that federal officials had deemed not credible. Like Bloomberg, he was unapologetic, saying at the time, "We get briefings almost every day, but this one was time specific and location specific, and I felt it was appropriate to tell people what I was doing."

President Bush commented on the New York situation Friday, while passing up a chance to endorse the actions of fellow Republican Bloomberg, who is up for re-election next month.

"I think they took the information we gave and made the judgments they thought were necessary," Bush said, sidestepping a question about whether he believed Bloomberg overreacted.

However, Bush did make a point of praising improved sharing of information between Washington and local authorities. "The level of cooperation between the federal government and the local government is getting better and better. And part of that level of cooperation is the ability to pass information on. And we did, and they responded," the president said.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., backed Bloomberg's decision, criticizing federal officials who downplayed the threat and then said so publicly.

"That sends a mixed message which confuses the people, and besides that they're wrong," said King, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. "In any event, even if there was some doubt as to what the right thing to do is, you shouldn't be having public disputes over that."

___

Associated Press Writer Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.

On the Net:

Department of Homeland Security: http://www.dhs.gov

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
 
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