Freed from a judge’s gag order, FBI officials and Las Vegas police confirmed Tuesday night they learned in the fall of 2002 about two videotapes suggesting terrorists had cased the city’s casinos but decided it wasn’t necessary to alert the public.
The officials also strongly disputed they didn’t take the evidence seriously, as suggested in Justice Department documents obtained by The Associated Press and by a federal prosecutor in Detroit who alerted them to the evidence and spoke publicly of his concerns this week.
The tapes were shown to casinos in the fall of 2002, officials said, but they added there was differing recollections about whether some local officials declined a later opportunity to learn more about the surveillance from an FBI agent from Detroit who had worked on the case.
“We took the tapes seriously,” Special Agent David Nanz in Las Vegas said in an interview. “When we get a tape like that, ... further investigation is required to determine its relevance. And that’s what we did.”
Nanz said, however, his office agreed with colleagues in Detroit that both tapes amounted to terrorist surveillance. “We don’t dispute those were surveillance tapes,” he said.
In documents and interviews reported by the AP on Monday, authorities in Detroit alleged as early as September 2002 that Las Vegas authorities didn’t want to issue a public warning because of concerns it might hurt tourism or affect the casinos’ legal liability.
Las Vegas authorities denied Tuesday those factors affected their decision.
Nanz said one of the two tapes, the Spanish al-Qaida footage, was still classified at the time and Las Vegas authorities weren’t immediately told that a witness, named Youseff Hmimssa, would corroborate the threat on the Detroit tape by saying members of a terror cell in Detroit had vowed to destroy the tourist city.
“The FBI in Las Vegas was not made aware in advance that Hmimssa’s testimony would implicate security issues with Las Vegas,” he said.
After several Las Vegas authorities said Monday they never knew about the tapes, Clark County Undersheriff Douglas Gillespie researched the issue Tuesday and confirmed two of his officers had indeed seen the footage and that authorities also offered the opportunity for the casinos to likewise view the footage.
“At no time did the information gleaned from these videos change the threat level in Las Vegas,” Gillespie said, adding that he believed his department handled the information correctly.
Nanz and Gillespie spoke Tuesday night after the Justice Department sought permission from a judge in Detroit to talk about some evidence that emerged in the AP story even though there is a gag order in the Detroit case.
Both men sought to resolve disputes among Las Vegas authorities, such as Mayor Oscar Goodman, who claimed they never knew about the tape. Their explanations, however, still conflicted with some documents written at the time.
For instance, Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Corbett wrote in a Justice memo that FBI agent Paul George specifically flew to Las Vegas to apprise authorities about Hmimssa’s testimony. He also wrote that casino and FBI officials there declined an offer to review the tapes with him, and only two local police officials showed up.
But Nanz said George never offered to show the video footage to FBI officials in Las Vegas and never told them about Hmimssa, although it is possible he made such an offer in later conversations with the local police. He also noted the casinos might have declined a second invitation to view the tapes because they had seen them once already.
One of the tapes, found in Spain in 2002, shows al-Qaida’s European operatives surveying Las Vegas casinos in 1997, engaging in casual conversation that included an apparent reference to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The other tape found in a Detroit terror cell’s apartment had eerily similar footage of the MGM Grand, Excalibur and New York, New York casinos — three hotels within a short distance of each other on the Las Vegas strip with a combined total of 11,000 rooms.
One Justice Department document obtained by the AP quotes a federal prosecutor in Las Vegas as saying the city’s mayor was concerned about the “deleterious effect on the Las Vegas tourism industry” if the evidence became public.
Another memo states the casinos didn’t want to see the footage for fear it would make them more likely to be held liable in civil court if an attack occurred.
“The information, unfortunately, was not taken as seriously as we believed it to have been,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino told the AP in an interview.
Convertino led the successful prosecution of the Detroit terror cell but has since been removed from the case amid an investigation into whether the prosecution team withheld certain evidence from defense lawyers. Convertino alleges the probe is retaliation for his recent cooperation with Congress.