Video: Baltimore terrorism alert

By Tom Costello Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/18/2005 7:27:42 PM ET 2005-10-18T23:27:42

Police in Maryland Tuesday closed for two hours one of the busiest highway arteries along the East Coast in reaction to a tip that intelligence agencies say was skeptical.

The backup stretched for six miles as Maryland police searched for a vehicle they feared could be carrying explosives through a key Baltimore tunnel.

“The price of democracy, I guess,” said one traveler. “Can't afford to take a chance, can you?”

The tip had come from a radical Islamist in the Netherlands that sources tell NBC News is of questionable credibility. The information could not be corroborated, but state authorities decided to act and the feds went along.

“They're in the business of protecting us, the country, the United States of America,” said Gov. Robert Ehrlich, R-Md. “I'm in the business of protecting one state in this country.”

A unified front, nearly two weeks after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg raised the subway alert status, acting on intelligence that federal authorities said was questionable.

“If I'm going to make a mistake, you can rest assured it is going to be on the side of being cautious,” Bloomberg said Oct. 6.

Still, Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske says as tips become more city-specific, the locals simply cannot afford to take a chance.

“I also think that we have a sophistication in the larger cities to probably interpret some of this information in a context, because we know our own communities probably better than any federal official,” says Kerlikowske.

But do too many alerts numb the very people they're meant to protect?

“I think there's a concern about crying wolf, but people also have to recognize that intelligence is an art, not a science,” says David Heyman with the Center for Strategic International Studies. “And that the actual specifics and credibility of it has to be validated.The worst is to validate credible intelligence by an attack.”

Maryland authorities say they acted Tuesday because the original tip contained specific dates. They've also questioned several people in Baltimore — one of whom is being held on immigration charges — but authorities still aren't sure how good that original tip was.

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