Al-Qaida photos of Space Needle found; meaning unknown

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While Gov. Gary Locke and other local officials downplayed the significance of Space Needle photographs found among al-Qaida documents seized in Afghanistan, some law-enforcement officials said the photos may be evidence that terrorists were targeting Seattle.

Seattle's police chief last night said reports of specific al-Qaida attack plans against the Space Needle or any other state landmark, such as Grand Coulee Dam, were exaggerated.

"There's absolutely no specific threat that I've been made aware of, other than the fact that a picture of the Space Needle was found," said Chief Gil Kerlikowske, who was told by the FBI about the discovery several days ago. "Though, certainly there's cause for concern when a photograph of a Seattle landmark is found."

One law-enforcement official said yesterday that federal officials were alarmed that the Seattle photos were found, along with many other documents, in the caves of Tora Bora, the al-Qaida stronghold in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan.

"We have a serious and substantial concern that there was more than one photograph of the Space Needle recovered from Afghanistan that appear to be targeting Seattle," a source said last night.

"The big issue is one of context," said another law-enforcement source. "While clearly it's something we cannot brush aside, we can't say what it means right now either."

Locke, who called a press conference after news of the photographs broke on NBC News, said the FBI told him the photos appeared to have been taken "many, many years ago," when the Kingdome was still standing.

The FBI told Locke about the Space Needle photographs last week.

"From the information that I've been privy to and am authorized to disclose, it's a photograph that appears to be typical of a tourist photograph ... from a great distance, of the top half of the Space Needle," Locke said.

Locke said no "detailed plans or drawings" had been found.

National Guard Maj. Gen. Tim Lowenberg, who joined Locke at yesterday's press briefing, also described the photos as tourist quality and "nothing having any intelligence value."

Locke repeatedly said the FBI had assured him there were no credible threats against Washington state. Because of those assurances, Locke said, "There was no need to inform people."

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Bush said U.S. troops had found diagrams of American nuclear-power plants and public-water facilities, detailed instructions for making chemical weapons and surveillance maps of U.S. cities.

NBC News last night cited unnamed federal officials in reporting that the documents "showed plans to attack other targets in Washington state, including massive hydroelectric dams, such as the Grand Coulee Dam."

Neither Locke nor Lowenberg would comment on reports that photographs of Grand Coulee Dam had been found.

But a law-enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said reports indicating that the dam was a target were "a bit of a stretch."

Grant County Sheriff Bill Wiester said last night that he had received no information from federal law-enforcement agencies or officials at Grand Coulee Dam about a specific threat.

"And I think we would have heard from them. We've had good communication so far," since the Sept. 11 attacks, he said. "The first I've heard of this was 10 minutes ago on the news."

Kerlikowske said the Space Needle has remained under a tight watch since the fall of 1999, when local police worried it could be a target of protests during the World Trade Organization (WTO) conference.

The Space Needle was also thought to have been a target in an Osama bin Laden-sanctioned plot around the millennium, when al-Qaida operative Ahmed Ressam was stopped in Port Angeles on Dec. 14, 1999, trying to enter the U.S. from Canada with the makings of a powerful bomb in the trunk of his rental car.

Ressam had made reservations to stay at a motel five blocks from the Space Needle. Concerns that Seattle's millennium celebration might have been a target led former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell to cancel the festivities.

Ressam, who was convicted last spring and is now cooperating with authorities, said his target was the Los Angeles International Airport. In 1998, Ressam had attended the bin Laden-sponsored terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.

Testifying against a co-conspirator last summer, Ressam said he was taught "how to blow up the infrastructure of a country."

Targets could include installations such as power plants, railroads, large corporations and hotels, Ressam testified.

Precautions taken at the time of the WTO conference and the millennium, combined with security measures since Sept. 11, have left the Space Needle on ongoing alert, Kerlikowske said. Police officers are assigned full time to Seattle Center, and private Space Needle security is trained to work with Seattle police, he said.

"I'm very confident with the fact that the Space Needle has excellent security," Kerlikowske said.

Mayor Greg Nickels said he was told of the Space Needle photos early yesterday. Like the police chief, Nickels said he didn't know of any specific plan to attack the Space Needle or any other site.

But "we're already preparing for what might come," he said.

Nickels said the news reinforces the notion that terrorist attacks "could happen in any American city."

"We're a city that I think is proud of its place in the world, but we have to be aware that puts us at risk," Nickels said.

As part of his 100-day agenda, Nickels has called for improving the city's emergency-preparedness plans, with an emphasis on precautions against bioterrorism.

Schell, who was criticized after he canceled the millennium celebration, said last night he wasn't surprised that Seattle may be a terrorist target.

"In the future, I hope people give the elected (officials) the benefit of the doubt," Schell said.

When Ressam testified he was actually headed for the Los Angeles airport, Schell said he was never sure that was true, or that there wasn't a second conspirator going after the Space Needle. He said he was warned that Seattle was the last city to reach midnight on CNN's schedule of New Year broadcasts that night, making it a choice target.

"Seattle might have been New York two years ago," Schell said. "Fortunately, we weren't."

Grand Coulee Dam is federally operated and has been under tight security since Sept. 11, eliminating tours, closing the road across the dam and taking many other precautions, said Dulcy Mahar, a spokeswoman for the Bonneville Power Administration, one of the agencies that operates the massive dam.

Mahar said she had not been warned by federal sources of any specific al-Qaida threat or the dam's inclusion in recently recovered documents.

"All federal agencies have heightened their security to what some find nearly uncomfortable levels," Mahar said. "But we'd rather err on the side of safety. We're comfortable that people are doing everything they possibly can. There's been no inattention on this."

In Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, a former ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that since Ressam's arrest it has been feared that the Space Needle and Washington state sites might be potential terrorist targets.

But he cautioned that discovering information, such as photos, doesn't mean that terrorists have workable plans to destroy them.

Dicks said the number of military bases in the state, as well as potential corporate targets such as Microsoft and Boeing, make it imperative that more attention be paid to homeland security. "A lot more needs to be done," he said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Jim Brunner and Washington, D.C., reporter Kevin Galvin contributed to this report.