- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

Veterans hospitals in the United States are potential targets of al Qaeda terrorists and other Islamic militants reluctant to attack more-heavily defended U.S. military installations, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security said.

In a new nationwide terrorism bulletin sent this week to law enforcement officials and security personnel, the two federal agencies said that while there was no specific credible evidence that Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals had been targeted, there was intelligence data — including persistent reports of “suspicious activity” at medical facilities nationwide — to issue the alert.

That information included “possible reconnaissance activities” this year at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and at the Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colo., just outside Denver, according to the bulletin, which urged vigilance at all hospitals on the part of police and security personnel.

Neither the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda nor the Fitzsimmons facility are VA hospitals, but the bulletin urged local police and security personnel to pay special attention to such institutions.

“These facilities may be considered attractive targets due to their association with the military and a perception that such an attack may be more successful than an attack against traditional military targets, which generally maintain a more robust security posture,” the bulletin said.

Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse described the bulletin as “informational,” adding that those who work or visit these facilities can be “assured that there is a high level of security already in place.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs operates 163 hospitals nationwide: three in Maryland, at Baltimore, Fort Howard and Perry Point; three in Virginia, at Hampton, Richmond and Salem; and one in Washington.

The FBI bulletin warned law enforcement and security personnel to be on the lookout for surveillance activities, including an increased interest by persons at access points. It also noted that potential terrorists could be disguised as “panhandlers, shoe shiners, food or flower vendors,” and warned against the discreet use of video cameras in areas not frequented by tourists.

The National Naval Medical Center is one of the nation’s largest and most renowned military medical centers, providing health care to military members, their families and many of the nation’s leaders. It is considered the national capital region resource for homeland defense.

The medical center is the president’s hospital and also is where a number of Marines and sailors injured during the Iraqi war — along with soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest — are being treated for their wounds.

The center also maintains and staffs the USNS Comfort, the 1,000-bed hospital ship that most recently was deployed to the Middle East.

Earlier this month, the FBI — concerned that al Qaeda or others intend to attack the United States before the Nov. 2 presidential election — warned 18,000 police and government officials nationwide that operatives for the terrorist network were believed to have cased tourist attractions in Las Vegas.

The bureau also said that the terrorist organization was considering the use of helicopters as an alternative to recruiting operatives for airplanes, and that al Qaeda terrorists and others could use rental cars to conceal powerful bombs, including limousines that have a larger storage capacity than average cars.

The Bush administration has increased the threat code level to orange, or high, in New York City and Washington, because of concern about possible attacks on financial institutions in those two cities. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge cited “unusually specific” intelligence in ordering the terror level raised. The D.C. targets are the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

U.S. Capitol Police have since beefed up security around the U.S. Capitol, even though it was not mentioned as a terror target, saying any threat against the District warranted extra protection on Capitol Hill.

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