Gov. Gray Davis set off a flurry of mildly panicked inquiries Thursday when he told reporters that terrorists may be targeting California suspension bridges for a terrorist attack somewhere between Nov. 2 and Nov. 7.
The announcement came at a press conference in Los Angeles, during which Davis presented FBI veteran George Vinson as his new special advisor on state security issues. Davis is in Los Angeles for an economic summit to be held in Burbank Friday.
“We have received from several different sources threats that the law enforcement agencies in general believe are credible,” Davis said, immediately catapulting himself onto television screens across the nation as cable channels broke into regular programming to announce the new terrorist threat.
Davis also appeared on Larry King Live Thursday night and said he received warnings from three separate federal agencies.
Oakland mayor Jerry Brown said on CNN news that the threat warnings he had received were confused.
“I’m going to drive across that bridge unless we receive a lot more credible information than what we got today,” he said.
Brown was asked what the point of the governor’s warning was if vehicles were not going to be searched or the bridges closed. After several attempts to explain the difficulty in balancing warnings of danger with the need to continue daily life, the former California governor finally confessed: “I don’t know what the point was.”
While polls nationwide have shown the public coalescing behind elected officials from the president on down to city council members, there has been no similar increase in Davis’ popularity. In a late September field poll, the governor’s approval rating among Californians dropped to 41 percent, the lowest since he took office.
“As governor, he has to take the heat for the economic crisis and the downturn in the state’s economy,” said Democratic pollster David Binder of San Francisco.
Nearly every government agency in the state was flooded with calls from reporters and worried citizens all afternoon. They seemed caught off-guard by the statement and much less concerned about the threat than the governor.
Caltrans referred calls to a wrong number for the California Highway Patrol; the CHP took messages and promised to return calls. Even the governor’s office had no prepared statement or staff ready to respond to questions.
A spokesperson for the CHP said there are no plans to close any of the bridges, or to search crossing cars. In a terse written statement, the FBI stressed that “the information presented was unsubstantiated, and the reliability of the source is unknown.”
An FBI spokesperson in the agency’s San Francisco office appeared to struggle to maintain his professional demeanor and politely refused to comment on whether the governor’s decision to make the announcement was motivated as much by politics as by security. Asked if the Davis should have made the threat public, his composure snapped.
“Well, it’s too late now,” he said.
Coast Guard spokesperson Barry Lane said the Coast Guard has been on heightened alert since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“As for preparing for a new threat, we’ve been preparing for any threat,” he said. He advised the public to “just rest assured that the Coast Guard and other government agencies have everything under control.”
Davis said people have to decide whether or not to cross the bridges, just as they have to decide if it is safe for them to fly.
“They’ll have to make whatever choices they think are best for them,” he said. “We want them to know, if they’re going to cross these bridges that we’ve done everything possible to ensure their safety, and we have.”
According to Davis, the threatened bridges are the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge, Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles, and the San Diego Coronado Bridge. An average of 270,000 cars cross the Bay Bridge each day, and about 125,000 use the Golden Gate.