Terrorists in Seattle? Could be.

A man identified as a terrorist by the Joint Terrorism Task Force spent a couple of hours on top of the Space Needle last winter taking digital photos and drawing sketches of the Seattle waterfront, according to a credible source who spoke only on strict condition of anonymity.

The source also said the man was timing the ferries as they pulled into and out of port the same day, when the mayor and Italian officials visited the Space Needle as part of a Seattle and Perugia, Italy, sister-city event.

Bear in mind, that information and other damning details below haven't been confirmed. That makes this story highly suspect, journalistically speaking.

But I think it's true, based on two reasons.

One is that the information I got was very detailed, making it unlikely that I was fed a simple line of bull.

The second is that official reaction to my questions about the unconfirmed information paints at least a circumstantial picture of support.

The man who was taking photos and doing sketches on top of the Space Needle also spent a couple of hours around the base of the Seattle symbol, according to the source, who said the man paid special attention to the exit doors.

The terrorism task force was called but couldn't come that day, the source said. But members did come by a week or so later and looked at Space Needle surveillance tapes of the man, according to the source, who said the feds basically freaked.

The source added that the feds described the alleged terrorist as "a very bad man" who wasn't even supposed to be in the country.

He wasn't alone, either.

The alleged terrorist was originally going to pay with a credit card, but a man in what looked like a Pakistani family surreptitiously slipped the man a $20 so he could pay in cash, according to the source.

The source figures the Pakistani was the other man's handler or trainer, and the Pakistani man re-appeared at the Space Needle about a week later.

That time he was flagged and followed on the monorail by a Space Needle staffer to the Westlake Mall, according to the source. The Pakistani got away, the source added, when the Space Needle staffer suddenly noticed he himself was being followed by two Middle Eastern men and fled in fear.

Pretty alarming stuff. After all, the observation deck on the Needle offers a panoramic and tactically significant view of the Seattle waterfront. And I found that the baggage check was only cursory when I showed up last week with a briefcase.

But wait a minute. Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge was here not that long ago, and he didn't say a damned thing about terrorist surveillance in Seattle.

I and my source both suspect there's been a coverup, just as there was in Las Vegas, where officials failed to show up when the feds wanted to brief the city about surveillance video of casinos found in a terrorist's possession. The reason for both is economics and tourist dollars, according to the source.

There were also some suspicious goings-on last spring, when a well-dressed Middle Eastern man who looked like a Saudi terrorist listed on a security bulletin showed up at the Space Needle, the source said.

The man was asking whether security staff carried guns and whether all bags were searched, according to the source, who added that the bag checker found it to be a frightening experience.

The terrorism task force was called when the Saudi showed up again at the Needle a week later, but only a regular beat cop showed up to look at the suspicious man on a surveillance camera at the Experience Music Project, where he'd walked after leaving the Space Needle, the source said. The cop didn't think it was the same man shown on the security bulletin, and he wasn't contacted in person, according to the source.

A call about all this to the Space Needle wasn't returned; neither was one to the mayor's office. Either or both entities could have easily denied that there was a problem.

By contrast, a call to the Port of Seattle office drew an immediate response from spokesman Mick Shultz, who said he hadn't heard anything about an alleged terrorist scoping out the waterfront. "Our security guys would have heard about it," he insisted.

The Seattle Police Department, which is part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, deferred all comment to the FBI, instead of simply denying there has been some suspicious, possibly terrorist-related activity going on.

Following that is when this story got really interesting.

Speaking on behalf of the FBI, U.S. Attorney's Office public-affairs staffer Emily Langlie initially said, "We do not comment in any way on ongoing investigations." But Langlie said she would check around when I suggested the investigation about the guy atop the Needle might be over since it happened last year.

Her followup response was: "At this point, I can't confirm or deny whether there is an investigation." However, Langlie noted that U.S. Attorney John McKay had been quoted in the daily press about terrorist surveillance of the ferry system.

Indeed, in a July 2, 2004, story in The Seattle Times, McKay said he questioned whether state officials were taking seriously information that seems to indicate the ferry system has been "under surveillance by possible terrorists." Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it?

McKay also charged that the threat assessment about the ferry system had been portrayed in a benign manner, when it really should have been taken to heart. The U.S. Attorney added that he didn't think the public had been properly informed, and he was quoted in the Times the year before saying it was an eye-opener for him to see the port and its vulnerability.

Maybe I'm just being paranoid; maybe there's nothing to this story. But, like the old adage goes: just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you!

Russ Zabel is a reporter for this publication and six other community newspapers owned by Pacific Publishing Co. He can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com or (206) 461-1309.

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