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web posted May 20, 2002

25 Islamic extremists enter U.S. as stowaways, Feds say

Twenty-five Islamic extremists have illegally entered the U.S. since March as stowaways on cargo ships, federal officials told Fox News on May 13.

The U.S. Coast Guard has notified federal, state and local officials that it has received intelligence information that the extremists have entered the U.S. on "prominent commercial cargo vessels," according to federal officials who read a Coast Guard document to Fox News.

The Coast Guard document says the "25 Islamic extremists" entered through the ports of Miami; Savannah, Ga.; and Long Beach, Calif.

The document, dated May 10, was read to Fox News by government officials in two separate federal agencies. It indicates that a classified briefing took place on May 14 to provide specifics to various law enforcement officials about the nature of the Islamic extremists and the quantity and quality of the information that the government has obtained.

A Bush administration official told Fox News that the document is based on intelligence information whose "credibility has not yet been determined."

Government officials point out that there has been no change in the nationwide alert level, and not all agencies and law enforcement communities have been contacted about this.

The development comes as U.S. intelligence officials confirmed a report in the Washington Times that they have received threats that terrorists will strike a U.S. nuclear power plant July 4, and are reviewing the information to determine whether it is reliable.

The government is taking the July 4 threat seriously, though officials have preliminarily determined that the information is not credible enough to act upon, said a government official familiar with the investigation.

The threat initially was believed to have come from al-Qaida leader Abu Zubaydah, who was captured by U.S. forces and is undergoing interrogation. But officials told Fox News on May 13 that the threat came from an 'unverified, untested' Eastern European intelligence service.

An official said the alleged Independence Day plot is one of scores of threats filtering through U.S. intelligence and is not considered serious enough to formally warn the American public or change the nuclear industry's already high level of alert.

"We hear about potential threats tied to specific dates all the time — Christmas, New Year's, Ramadan..." the official said.

He said federal authorities take the threats seriously and take precautions, but he said that doesn't make the threats any more credible.

The threat received two weeks ago suggested that an unidentified Islamic terrorist group is planning to attack the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania or another plan elsewhere in the Northeast, the source said.

It's our right to bear arms, poll finds Americans believe

Americans overwhelmingly agree with the Justice Department's new position that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of citizens to own guns. But most also favor some restrictions on that right.

After hearing the Second Amendment verbatim, 73 percent in an ABCNEWS.com poll said it guarantees the right to individual gun ownership. Twenty percent said, instead, that it only guarantees the right of states to maintain militias — the government's longstanding position until the Justice Department reversed it in a U.S. Supreme Court brief two weeks ago.

Most do support some restrictions on this right, with 57 percent of Americans favoring "stricter gun control laws." That's about the same as it was last year, but 10 points below its peak. And "strong" support for gun control, at 39 percent, is down seven points since last year, to its lowest in 10 years. (The government's new position, likewise, says gun ownership should be "subject to reasonable restrictions.")

Previous polling by ABCNEWS has found that larger majorities support specific measures such as background checks at gun shows, mandatory trigger locks, handgun registration, banning assault weapons and licensing handgun owners. But nearly six in 10 have opposed a nationwide ban on the sale of handguns, except to law enforcement officers.

Gun control hasn't ranked as a top-tier issue. Few think new laws would substantially reduce violent crime, or would be more effective than better enforcement of current laws.

Support for stricter gun control rises to just under seven in 10 women, Democrats, nonwhites, and Northeasterners. It even reaches a slim majority, 51 percent, of those who say the Second Amendment guarantees gun ownership.

Large majorities in all demographic groups agree with the Justice Department's new view on gun rights, peaking among men, whites, Republicans and residents of the South and Midwest. Even 65 percent of those who support tougher gun laws agree, as do 66 percent of women and Democrats.

The government's new position states that the Second Amendment "more broadly protects the rights of individuals, including persons who are not members of any militia or engage in active service or training, to possess and bear their own firearms, subject to reasonable restrictions designed to prevent possession by unfit persons or to restrict the possession of types of firearms that are particularly suited to criminal use."

The amendment itself states: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

The ABCNEWS.com survey was conducted by telephone May 8-12, among a random national sample of 1,028 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation was conducted by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.

Airport face scanner failed

Facial recognition technology tested at the Palm Beach International Airport had a dismal failure rate, according to preliminary results from a pilot program at the facility.

The system failed to correctly identify airport employees 53 percent of the time, according to test data that was obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under Florida's open records law.

"The preliminary results at the Palm Beach International Airport confirm that the use of facial recognition technology is simply ineffective and of no value," said Randall Marshall, legal director of the state ACLU chapter.

The manufacturer of the system, Visionics, said the results were poor because their product was not used correctly.

Ever since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, face scanning technology has been touted by manufacturers as the perfect device for recognizing terrorists in airports. In theory, the systems use surveillance cameras to scan crowds for bad guys and sound an alarm when a match is made between a live person and the system's database of known criminals.

The Palm Beach airport tried Visionics' FaceIt system, which snaps photographs of passersby using a security camera and breaks down their facial features into a numeric code that is matched against the photograph database.

The month-long test compared 15 employees against a database containing the mug shots of 250 airport workers, said airport spokeswoman Lisa De La Rionda, who declined to comment on the quality of the system.

"They never made promises to us about how successful the system would be," she said, stressing that it was tested free of charge.

But the ACLU said the study was done under optimal conditions and still exhibited fatal flaws. Out of 958 attempts to match the 15 test employees' faces to the database, the system succeeded only 455 times.

The Tampa police department has also been testing the FaceIt system over the last six months, and the technology has yet to make a match with a database of known criminals.

"The system could be serving as a deterrent for criminal activity ... we still believe in its potential for law enforcement," said police department spokeswoman Katie Hughes.

The airport trial found that the photographs included in the database had to be good quality to avoid false alarms and ensure successful matches. Head motion, indirect lighting, sunglasses and eyeglasses also flummoxed the system.

The finicky nature of the software was previously documented by Internet privacy and security consultant Richard Smith. Last fall, Smith analyzed the FaceIt software and found a 50 percent failure rate as he adjusted for variables such as face angle and hats.

"If you adjusted everything just right you could get OK results," he said.

Visionics, whose face scanning systems are being tested at four U.S. airports, bristled at the ACLU's conclusions.

"The decision makers will not be reading a report from the ACLU, they'll be looking at the real data," said Visionics spokesman Meir Kaahtan.

He said that similar tests at the Dallas-Fort Worth and Boston Logan airports showed a 90 percent success rate and insisted that the poor results at the Palm Beach International airport were due to incorrect lighting. Results for the other pilot programs were not immediately available.

Canada had trouble manning warships

The Canadian navy is so understrength it had trouble manning the six ships sent to the Gulf in the war against terrorism last year and has had to reduce its commitment in the region to three, according to confidential military documents.

"A close scrutiny of the numbers reveals that there are serious shortages in naval electronics technicians, naval weapons technicians, some combat operator trades and ... officers, especially at the director level," according to a confidential draft document prepared in October, one of several military documents obtained by the National Post under the Access to Information Act.

In fact, the Canadian Forces were short more than 1,000 trained naval personnel at the time, including 116 officers and 970 non-commissioned members, ranging from cooks and plumbers to professional divers and equipment operators.

Senior officials considered cancelling officer training programs and recalling officers on paternity leave and on French courses. In the end, they took personnel from ships not being deployed and from the fleet schools on both coasts, in some cases putting maintenance technicians into teaching positions so instructors could man the ships.

"We did a little bit of a scramble," said Captain Bob Davidson, director of maritime personnel. "We reduced the number of people in some of the ships that weren't deploying and we borrowed people out of the schools and various locations so, clearly, there are some jobs not getting done. And in the meantime, of course, we've tried to backfill as much as possible.

"It meant we had to pull some people out of schools, and here and there, who might not have been expecting to go to sea."

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Art Eggleton, the Minister of Defence, volunteered six ships to assist in the U.S.-led war against terrorism. The ships left for the Arabian Sea in October.

Unable to sustain six ships on an assignment that could last as long as two years, the navy has reduced the number of ships to three.

"Three we can do almost indefinitely. Six was a huge challenge and created a lot of interim problems for us as well, having to move people out of schools, juggle jobs," Capt. Davidson said.

"We sort of ramped our way down little by little to our current commitment. Six was certainly not sustainable."

The contribution has left the navy with a shortage on both coasts of 1,090 people.

The effort is also proving expensive -- one early estimate pegs the cost of Operation Apollo at $8-million of the $27-million in 2002-2003 operating costs for the Maritime Forces Atlantic alone, according to the documents released under Access to Information.

There was also some concern that raiding the schools would create future problems for the navy, perpetuating the lack of trained personnel.

"It is very important that we do not over-commit -- the navy still has to move forward at home to train and regenerate," wrote a senior officer at headquarters in one of a flurry of e-mails on the topic.

Since the Liberals took power in 1993, the military's budget has been repeatedly decreased, along with the number of troops.

Retired officers and military experts have said the Canadian Forces are stretched too thin by peacekeeping and other overseas commitments at a time when they must cope with ageing equipment and fewer soldiers.

The federal government pledged to increase military spending by $1.2-billion in the last budget. Critics charged that more than four times that much was needed to preserve the Canadian Forces' ability to field a fighting force.

Marc Milner, a naval historian and professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, says Canada's navy has been critically short of personnel for several years.

"It's always ad hoc, it's always patch and fill," he said.

The navy realized three years ago that its numbers had dropped too low, Capt. Davidson said. A year ago, the Canadian Forces decided to launch a recruitment campaign, with ads hitting movie theatres around Christmas.

The recruitment drive has attracted 10,000 recruits, but not enough have signed up for navy positions, Capt. Davidson said.

"I'm still not getting the exact right kind of people I need," he said.

The big shortage is in the technical trades -- those who repair sonar and radar equipment and computers.

The documents also reveal a sensitivity to the impact of the naval action on the public.

"Since 1994, the army has used the high personnel and financial costs of sustaining forces in theatre as their central theme before government and the public when resources are discussed," said a confidential e-mail that was circulated among the highest ranks of the navy.

China lifts blocks on some western news sites

China appears to have lifted long-standing blocks on the Web sites of several Western news organizations, which were accessible on May 16 through local Internet connections in Beijing and Shanghai.

There was no official announcement explaining why normally censored Web sites -- including those of Reuters, CNN and The Washington Post -- were accessible. Nor was there any immediate indication of a change in policy.

"We aren't aware that there's any change," said a CNN spokeswoman in Hong Kong.

Foreign news organizations have lobbied hard for China to unblock their sites, but Beijing remains deeply suspicious of foreign media, especially given the leadership shuffle that is expected to take place this year.

The reason and timing for the apparent removal of the blocks, which many Web-savvy Chinese had already found ways to circumvent, was not immediately clear. It was also not known if the sites would remain accessible.

"Maybe they've realized that it is very easy to get around their blocks anyway and that it may be more efficient to just open them up and monitor their use," said one Western diplomat.

"They must have cared to have them blocked in the first place. It's a good move in general."

Today, the sites of the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe and Atlanta Journal-Constitution could also be accessed.

Sites for Time magazine, the Voice of America and BBC news, however, appeared still to be blocked.

The Ministry of State Security declined to comment and officials at the Ministry of Information Industry were unavailable.

Officials at the Foreign Ministry and the Information Office of the State Council, China's cabinet, said they were unaware the previously censored Web sites had been unblocked.

China has permitted access to normally blocked foreign news Web sites in the past, but mostly on a temporary basis.

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