By Andrew Gumbel and Chris Blackhurst
HEAVILY ARMED federal agents and local police investigators fanned out across the eastern seaboard of the United States yesterday, mounting a raid at a Boston hotel, emptying a train in Rhode Island and searching homes and businesses in southern Florida in a massive hunt for leads establishing who was responsible for Tuesday's attacks on New York and Washington.
In the first dramatic incident of what is expected to become the country's largest criminal investigation, a rapid-response police team descended on the Westin Hotel in Boston's Copley Square early yesterday afternoon hoping to search two rooms rented in the name of a hijacking suspect.
According to some news reports, they ran into three people in a corridor who were taken into custody. One person was apparently injured, and a stretcher was seen being taken into the hotel.
A search of the rooms yielded evidence of a link to someone whose name appeared in the passenger lists of the hijacked planes, police sources said. The search also turned up hair dye and other materials useful for creating disguises. It appeared many people had come and gone from the rooms in the past few days.
No arrests were made, at least not in connection with Tuesday's hijackings and explosions, but Bob Mueller, the director of the FBI, told a news briefing in Washington that some people picked up by his agents were being held on the grounds that they were in the United States illegally.
Eyewitnesses saw at least one person being led away to a police van outside the hotel.
At Boston's Logan airport, where two of the four hijacked planes took off, the FBI impounded a rented Mitsubishi Mirage thought to have been left in a car park by one of the hijackers. News reports said they found flight manuals in Arabic inside.
Another key piece of evidence came in the form of bags lost at the airport during a connection from Portland, Maine, to one of the hijacked planes. These were believed to contained a copy of the Koran, an instructional video on flying commercial aircraft and a fuel consumption calculator. A rental car left in Portland was also seized.
Mr Mueller said in his briefing that his agency had two broad aims. The first was to identify the hijackers and their associates in the United States, round up those associates and ensure the removal of any threat to the commercial air system in future. The second was to establish who assisted the hijackers, both within in the United States and overseas.
He said the FBI had identified individuals in the originating cities of the ill-fated flights who may have had something to do with the operation. "We are pursuing those leads aggressively," he added.
In Providence, about 40 miles south-west of Boston, police stopped an Amtrak train travelling from Boston and ordered the passengers to get off. A local television station reported that three people were removed from the train and questioned. One man was seen being handcuffed and led away. Vincent Cianci, the mayor of Providence, said he had been told the police were looking for as many as four suspects who had eluded the authorities in Boston.
Meanwhile, in south Florida, the FBI was investigating two suspected associates of Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi financier identified as the possible mastermind behind the attacks, as well as a local flying school where some of the hijackers might have received training. A couple in Miami, the Vosses, said two men had stayed with them last summer while attending training courses. The FBI, they said, identified the two as Mohamad Atta and Marwan.
Another flying school in Daytona Beachl, Florida, was also being investigated, as well as other leads from around the country.
The FBI established command posts at every affected city, airport and crash site, and its agents were reported to be conducting interviews all the way from Maine to southern California.
Alerts were put out for two vehicles, one a white Chevrolet van with New Jersey plates and the logo "Urban Moving Systems" on its side, and which was believed to contain three men, and the other a blue-green Toyota believed to contain two Arabs who were seen asking for directions to an airport. Three people were taken into custody for questioning after police stopped a van near the George Washington Bridge connecting New Jersey to New York, but there was no immediate word if they were the ones being sought.
The sheer scale of the operation was hard to comprehend. "Think of it as several Oklahoma City bombings wrapped up in one," said the former FBI deputy director, William Esposito.
Several senior officials, including Mr Mueller, indicated there was no guarantee that the danger of attack had entirely passed. The White House suggested that Air Force One, the President's plane, had been a target even while it was in the air from Sarasota, Florida, heading north – a seemingly incredible scenario that White House officials refused to elaborate on, citing national security concerns.
The investigation will be a major test of the FBI and the leadership of Mr Mueller, who has just taken over after a string of scandals and mishandled cases that have been little short of calamitous. The FBI's crime laboratory service, which is now present at all the crime scenes, was recently lambasted for failing to follow even basic procedures. Memories are still fresh of the Robert Hanssen spy scandal, the disastrous prosecution of the Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee for espionage offences he did not commit, and the mishandling and mysterious loss of documents in the Oklahoma City bombing case – the last investigation to be described as the biggest in US history.
Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, spent most of a short news briefing yesterday making cryptic references to security leaks and the need for all government personnel to respect the confidentiality of materials they handled. He refused to elaborate and said he had no knowledge of security leaks being responsible for Tuesday's calamity. His remarks nevertheless raised questions about the competence of the federal authorities to handle the crisis.
President George Bush, meanwhile, said he would ask Congress for permission to authorise emergency funding, both for the rescue and clean-up operations and for the criminal investigation. Because of concerns about exactly the kind of attack that occurred on Tuesday, the counter-terrorism budget has doubled over the past six years. Questions about how wisely this money has been spent are likely to amplify in the next few days.
One immediate question is the extent of involvement of Mr bin Laden. Orrin Hatch, a Republican senator, said he had heard in a security briefing that Mr bin Laden's associates had been heard in an electronic surveillance operation discussing the success of the hijackings and explosions. "We have information that indicates representatives that are affiliated with Osama bin Laden were actually saying over the airwaves, private airwaves, that they had hit two targets," Mr Hatch said.
Officially, no fingers are yet being pointed by the administration Some officials, speaking off the record, said it was not inconceivable that Mr bin Laden planned the offensive in conjunction with others. In any case, it is likely that the hijackers operated in semi-secret cells, with no obvious hierarchical system and participants being privy only to information that directly concerned them.
That, and the fact that the immediate perpetrators of the attacks are all dead, will make it difficult, if not impossible, to pin down responsibility.Reuse content