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Cops on alert: For what, they have no idea

A nationwide warning of imminent terrorism comes with a lack of specifics. For now, police say it's post-Sept. 11 business as usual.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2001


A nationwide warning of imminent terrorism comes with a lack of specifics. For now, police say it's post-Sept. 11 business as usual.

The latest FBI warning sent to 18,000 law enforcement agencies could hardly be more vague: Some kind of terrorist attack might come, somewhere, sometime soon.

The cryptic warning brought little reaction from Tampa Bay area police departments and sheriff's offices, who say they already are on high alert and, without a more specific threat, can do little more.

"We don't have any more definitive information as to when, what, how and who," said St. Petersburg police Chief Mack Vines.

The FBI put out a warning Monday that terrorists may be planning another attack on U.S. interests. Homeland security director Tom Ridge said Tuesday that the warning -- the second this month -- was based on "credible sources" that suggested another attack would come in the next week or so.

Local police say they're watching for suspicious activity such as cars being parked where they shouldn't be. But for the most part, they are not hiring more officers or working more overtime.

If law enforcement knew of a threat to Pinellas County, sheriff's officials might cancel deputies' days off, put more deputies on duty and create security posts at vital buildings, said Pinellas sheriff's Lt. Scott Stiner.

"You would see a whole lot more activity than you're seeing," Stiner said.

But police have heard of no threat to the Tampa Bay area. Essentially, they'll keep doing what they've been doing since Sept. 11.

"We're not seeing a real need to drag out extra troops," said Hernando County sheriff's Lt. Joe Paez.

Hillsborough County sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said her department is not doing anything differently, and wondered whether such a vague warning could have drawbacks.

"Are we making the public more paranoid?" she asked.

Congress is asking the same question. The Bush administration fended off criticism Tuesday that its latest terrorism alert is causing unnecessary anxiety among jittery Americans.

"You wonder what these warnings achieve, other than to create more fear," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

Ridge, the homeland security director, had a message for congressional leaders: Get used to it.

"We're dealing with shadow soldiers, a shadow enemy," Ridge said. "I'm afraid we've just got to keep the highest possible level alert for a long, long time."

Local authorities went on high alert after Sept. 11 and again after the FBI's first terrorism warning on Oct. 11.

The U.S. Coast Guard has increased air and sea patrols.

At St. Petersburg's City Hall and Municipal Services Building, visitors must now check in at a security desk, and officers patrol the buildings more frequently.

In Largo, the Police Department increased staffing and slimmed down training programs to put more officers on the street.

In semirural Citrus County, the likeliest target is the Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant. Since Sept. 11, an armed sheriff's deputy has been posted at the front gate 24 hours a day. The Coast Guard and Air Force patrol the water and sky surrounding the plant. And federal aviation officials have prohibited all general aviation within 111/2 miles of nuclear power plants.

On Tuesday, after the FBI's latest warning, Citrus County's sheriff provided the plant with more guards.

-- Times staff writers Ryan Davis, Brady Dennis, Amy Herdy, Carrie Johnson, Jamie Jones, Leonora LaPeter and Chris Tisch contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press.

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