A year after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Justice Department obtained video surveillance tapes suggesting terrorists were targeting Las Vegas casinos but authorities never alerted the public as they discussed whether a warning might hurt tourism or increase the casinos’ legal liability, internal memos show.
The mayor of Las Vegas said Monday he was never told about the tapes uncovered in Detroit and Spain in 2002, and had been assured by the FBI there were no credible threats against his city. “If I were told, I would certainly tell the public,” Mayor Oscar Goodman said.
But memos and e-mails between federal prosecutors, obtained by The Associated Press, say Las Vegas authorities were alerted to some of the footage by Aug. 30, 2002. Later, numerous local law enforcement officials were invited by a senior FBI agent to view the footage, but most spurned the invitation, the memos say.
One document quotes a federal prosecutor in Las Vegas as saying the mayor was concerned about the “deleterious effect on the Las Vegas tourism industry” if the Detroit 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.
One of the tapes, found in Spain, shows al-Qaida’s European operatives casing Las Vegas casinos in 1997, engaging in casual conversation that included an apparent reference to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Sept. 11, 2001, mastermind. The tape was sent to al-Qaida’s leadership to help in the selection of targets, documents show.
The documents state the two tapes include footage of the MGM Grand, Excalibur and New, 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.
“The information, unfortunately, was not taken as seriously as we believed it to have been,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino told AP in an interview, recounting how only two local police officers took up the FBI agent’s offer to see the tape.
“The reason that he (the FBI agent) was given for the low turnout was because of liability. That if they heard this information they would have to act on it. It was extraordinarily unacceptable and absolutely outrageous,” Convertino said.
The prosecutor said he later asked a Las Vegas police officer, who had seen the tape and flown to Detroit to help, why more wasn’t done. “This officer told me that the amount of money that travels through Las Vegas on a daily, weekly and monthly basis — if something doesn’t go boom, nothing is going to be done,” he said.
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.
Justice Department officials declined comment Monday, citing a gag order imposed by the judge in the Detroit case.
Goodman, the mayor, said he didn’t learn about either tape until an AP story on Sunday. Clark County Undersheriff Doug Gillespie said he first learned about the Detroit footage during the Detroit trial in spring 2003 and found out about the Spanish tape afterward.
“They’re saying we didn’t do our job, and it is to the contrary. They had the information. They chose not to give it to us,” Gillespie said of federal authorities.
Las Vegas has been considered a terror target since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks when it was determined that Mohammed Atta and his hijackers made trips there before their suicide attacks. But the extent of video surveillance hasn’t received attention.
The owner of the Excalibur, one of the casinos in the videos, said Monday he had never been told. “You’re giving me information I’ve never heard,” said Glenn Schaeffer, president and chief financial officer of Mandalay Resort Group.
Yvette Monet, a spokeswoman for the MGM, declined to say if casino officials were invited to see the tape, simply stating, “We have always cooperated with state, local and federal authorities in dealing with these matters and we continue to do so today.”
Homeland Security officials said Monday there is no imminent threat known to Las Vegas, although it remains a suspected target. They said the 2002 episode showed the need for the instant local alert system the department created last year.
Knowledge of the tapes reached the highest levels of Justice. The department’s terrorism chief, Barry Sabin, referenced the casino footage in a memo to the FBI.
In late summer 2002, FBI agents discovered the casino footage when they belatedly decoded a European surveillance tape found a year earlier in the Detroit terror cell’s apartment. A few weeks later, a Justice expert provided prosecutors similar surveillance that Spanish authorities had recovered from an al-Qaida cell in Madrid.
When FBI supervisory agent Paul George flew to Las Vegas to show the Detroit tape, “the FBI, casino representatives, Clark County Sheriff’s Department and the JTTF (joint terrorism task force) declined to attend,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Corbett wrote.
“No one showed up except for two Metro officers,” Corbett added. “Indeed, the casinos informed Agent George that they did not want to show up because of concerns about liability.”
In a series of e-mails, Convertino pleaded with Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Lever in Las Vegas to take the video footage seriously, even though local officials were cool to it. He noted two experts had concluded the tape matched other al-Qaida surveillance.
“While I understand your previously stated concerns that the mayor of Las Vegas, the local sheriff and others believe our indictment may temporarily have a deleterious effect on the Las Vegas tourism industry, it is unconscionable that any reasonable person would assert that anyone here possessed a cavalier attitude toward the tape,” Convertino wrote.
Prosecutors were allowed in spring 2003 to show the Detroit tape to jurors, but were kept by their superiors from introducing the Spanish tape.
Both tapes showed the three same hotels. The Excalibur, in fact, “was both shot inside and out, daytime and nighttime,” according to one Justice document.
The Detroit tape had struck Justice’s terror experts because it switched back and forth from scenes of Las Vegas to pre-Sept. 11 scenes of New York that included the World Trade Center and a hotel across from the twin towers.
A Justice expert wrote that both tapes followed the al-Qaida training manual because “surveillance is inserted into seemingly innocent tourist videos” to disguise it.
A cooperating prosecution witness in Detroit told authorities that one member of the alleged terror cell described Las Vegas as the “City of Satan” and boasted “the brothers are going to destroy it.”
Documents provided to U.S. authorities from Spain say the tape found in Madrid was taken by an al-Qaida operative in August 1997 and later sent via courier to al-Qaida’s leaders in Afghanistan.
“This is the city of Las Vegas famous by the games and what else?” one of the Spanish operatives asks in a Spanish transcript of the tape.
“Gambling,” another responded.
Later in the same conversation, one of the operatives states: “Look at the limousines. … They are waiting for us to rent one of them. … Let’s go to the hotel since we finished filming the casinos and we made $100,000 tonight.”