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Wednesday, October 12, 2005 

New York subway threat was a 'hoax'.

Does any of this sound vaguely familiar?

The alleged terror threat that sparked a big security alert on New York's trains and subway last week turned out to be a hoax concocted by an unreliable US informant in Iraq, it emerged yesterday.

Uniformed and undercover police descended on the city's subway system on Friday after what was described as a "specific threat" that a terror cell was planning to explode bombs concealed in pushchairs, suitcases and rucksacks. At one point a section of Penn Station was sealed off as security staff wearing chemical hazard suits investigated a "soupy green substance" found in a Pepsi bottle. It turned out be a cleaning substance.

But security sources yesterday told CNN that an informant in Iraq had admitted giving false information. Law enforcement officials said last week that the person who passed along the New York tip also gave information which led to the arrests of three al-Qaida suspects in Musayyib, south of Baghdad, said to have links to the alleged plot.

But yesterday government sources said the three men had been interviewed and two underwent lie detector tests showing they knew nothing about such a plan.

From the beginning some federal officials questioned the credibility of the plot, describing it as "specific yet non-credible". Some officials privately criticised the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, for overreacting to the alert, which came the day after George Bush claimed 10 big al-Qaida attacks had been thwarted since September 11 2001.

Law enforcement officials also told the New York Times yesterday that the investigation in Iraq had found no evidence that a plot was in motion or being actively contemplated. The officials said after taking the three men into custody last week they found no fake passports, no travel documents, no viable travel route to New York, and no apparent contact with people in New York. They said the informant had been right eight of the 15 times he gave information to his Defence Intelligence Agency handlers. He was right about information in Iraq and wrong mostly about actions elsewhere. "The process is not a clean one here. Ever," one official told the newspaper.

Mr Bloomberg said the extraordinary measures put in place last week, including police on every train, would be relaxed, but that the city would continue many of the safeguards it has taken to protect since the London bombings in July.

It reminded me of another threat that was used to great effect in the media in the run-up to the Iraq war. That too, it turned out, was from a single source. The threat? That the Iraqi army could launch chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order being made to use them. Also it was noted that it was possible that Iraqi missiles could hit Cyprus. Both sources turned out to be wrong, and added to the government's intelligence dossier at the last minute as Downing Street panicked about its pretty unconvincing case for war.

What made the 'threat' even more amusing was that even the Department of Homeland Security, not noted for its caution or political independence, said that they had no information of a threat, and doubted its credibility. As it stands, the whole thing was complete nonsense. Then again, coming the day after Bush's claim that 10 'al-Qaida' attacks had been stopped since 9/11, including some in Britain which the security services don't seem to know about, it was rather convenient coming in the week in which Bush was facing criticism over his supreme court nomination (according to the Washington Times (not the most credible source I realise) more than half of the Republican senators are unconvinced by Harriet Miers), Tom DeLay was indicted and had to resign from his post, and Judith Miller was released from prison as the net seemed to tighten around Karl Rove and Scooter Libby over the Plame affair. I'm not saying that this was an attempt to push bad news down the agenda; the above scandals have lasted longer than the New York threat, but it keeps up the impression that America is at war and that the terrorists are planning attacks, so be sure to vote Republican in next year's midterms!

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