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FBI's caution puzzles experts
The agency admits pipe bomb charges against two USF students may be false.
By ABBIE VANSICKLE, Times Staff Writer
Published August 16, 2007
A bomb squad technician examines items removed from a car on U.S. Highway 176 in Goose Creek, S.C.
TAMPA - For days after the arrest of two University of South Florida students accused of having pipe bombs, the FBI remained silent.
On Wednesday, the agency released a statement telling the public it's possible there's no merit to the accusations against Youssef Megahed, 21, and Ahmed A. Mohamed, 26. Both were arrested Aug. 4 in Goose Creek, S.C., on charges of possession of explosives.
"The FBI would like to remind everyone that this is an ongoing investigation and there is the possibility that the publicly reported allegations involving the students may be proven to be false," it read.
An FBI spokesman said the agency is still investigating, that it released the statement only because there's so much interest in the case, and it wants to be fair.
"We're just making a request for everybody to be very objective at this time, very neutral," said Special Agent Dave Couvertier.
But local legal experts say there's likely more to it.
"That is a highly unusual statement from the FBI," said Tampa lawyer John Fitzgibbons, a former federal prosecutor.
Other legal experts agreed, but no one knew what to make of it.
"Well, who knows what that means?" said Ed Page, a lawyer who has experience in Tampa and Washington, D.C. "Perhaps the initial assessment that the trunk contained pipe bombs was inaccurate. That's a weird statement, I've got to tell you, to be coming out of the FBI."
Fitzgibbons saw two scenarios. First, the FBI may not have a strong case against the students. Second, the Department of Justice may require a statement of that sort in its communication with the media.
Page agreed, adding that he'd never seen such a statement from the FBI. Neither had lawyer Stephen Crawford.
"I don't think I've ever seen an FBI statement that reminds us of our civil liberties," Crawford said. "I think it shows that it's probably going to turn out that the chemicals in those kids' trunks were more fireworks than it was bomb."
Bob Ulmer, a former FBI agent in Tampa, agreed the statement was unusual, but he said it sounded more like a policy decision or a deliberate attempt to be objective than the end of an investigation.
"I would say they're just being cautious," Ulmer said. "I've never heard it worded quite that way."
The FBI declined to elaborate, saying only that the investigation continues.