Baltimore tunnel scare ends, nerves rattled
BALTIMORE – A security scare closed two major Baltimore highway tunnels for about two hours on Tuesday, in the latest incident to unnerve the U.S. public and force officials to defend their actions as necessary precaution.
The closure of the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and the Fort McHenry Tunnel, clogging traffic on a major East Coast thoroughfare, was based on information from an “ongoing investigation” by the FBI, state and local authorities, Maryland Transportation Authority Police Chief Gary McLhinney said.
Searches of the tunnels and various vehicles turned up nothing suspicious, McLhinney said in announcing the resumption of traffic along the heavily traveled north-south Interstate 95 highway.
“When we get information … we’re going to err on the side of caution, an abundance of caution,” he said. He also said he could not comment on the nature of the investigation.
A U.S. law enforcement official said information about the supposed plot came from an informant in the past week.
The informant said those involved planned to receive bomb materials in a container marked “cocoa” that would arrive by ship in the port of Baltimore, the official said. They then planned to assemble the materials and put the explosive devices in vehicles to bomb at least one of the tunnels, according to the informant’s story.
The official said several individuals, said by the informant to be taking part in the plot, have been questioned by federal law enforcement officials. None of them has been arrested or charged, although the official said they might face immigration violations.
Another U.S. official said the plan originated in an unidentified European country.
In Washington, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security said in a joint statement that they recently shared information with federal, state and local law enforcement officials about “a potential threat of undetermined credibility to an unspecified tunnel in the Baltimore area.”
At a news conference in Baltimore, FBI Special Agent Kevin Perkins said while the information was “somewhat specific as to date and time … no evidence collected to date has corroborated the threat as it’s going on.”
He said the FBI was conducting interviews in an ongoing investigation, but he could not say whether arrests had been made.
“The interviews are more along the lines to determine whether or not the threat is credible,” Perkins said. “We need to follow up with certain individuals in an effort to determine the credibility of the information.”
He also said closing the tunnel was “just one aspect” of the investigation and said there was “an awful lot of other things ongoing,” but he declined to be more specific.
The FBI and Department of Homeland Security also said they backed “whatever protective measures, taken out of an abundance of caution, that state and local law enforcement authorities deem appropriate.”
The Baltimore scare occurred a little more than a week after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was criticized for placing the city’s subways on high alert, even though the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security had said they doubted the security threat’s credibility.
The New York alert was called off October 10 after detainees in Iraq thought to be plotting to bomb the transit system indicated the threat lacked credibility.
Bloomberg defended his decision, saying every threat has to be taken seriously.
The two Baltimore tunnels carry some 67 million vehicles a year traveling between Washington, Philadelphia and New York.
The tunnels were closed at 11:20 a.m. (1520 GMT) and about two hours later, McLhinney said, the search was called off.
During the search, the Harbor Tunnel was completely closed, while one lane of the Fort McHenry Tunnel was closed in each direction, the Maryland Transportation Authority Police said.
Nerves have also been rattled in Washington by a series of small aircraft which strayed into restricted airspace around the city, setting off security scares that resulted in the evacuation of some government buildings.
Earlier this month, the Washington Monument was evacuated due to a telephone bomb threat. Authorities then briefly closed it less than a week later for unspecified reasons.