WASHINGTON – When the Justice Department (search) obtained two videos suggesting terrorists had cased Las Vegas casinos, the discussions didn't center on public alerts or heightened security. Rather, authorities worried about the effects on tourism and the casinos' legal liabilities, internal memos show.
One of the tapes, found in Spain in 2002, shows Al Qaeda's European operatives casing Las Vegas casinos in 1997, engaging in casual conversation that included an apparent reference to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (search), the 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.
Though the FBI offered, most local law enforcement and casino security officers declined an invitation to view the footage after it was obtained in 2002, according to the memos and one of the prosecutors in the Detroit case.
One document obtained by The Associated Press 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. The mayor said Monday he was never told of the footage.
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 AP in an interview, recounting how only two local police officers accepted 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.
Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said Monday he was never told about the tapes until learning about them from AP this week. "If I were told, I would certainly tell the public," Goodman said.
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, but he confirmed two of his detectives had met with the FBI.
"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.
FBI Special Agent Dave Nanz in Las Vegas said he could not speak about the specifics of the Detroit case but that "any credible information that we obtain from any source suggesting any terror threat to Las Vegas, we share with local law enforcement and security chiefs in the casinos."
Homeland Security Department 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.
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 on New York City and Washington. But the extent of video surveillance hasn't received attention, even after U.S. authorities announced new terror concerns about Last Vegas last December.
The owner of the Excalibur said Monday he never had been told of the tapes. "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 whether 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."
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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda operative in August 1997 and later sent via courier to Al Qaeda's leaders in Afghanistan.