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Authorities in Florida Respond to Possible Terror Threat

Aired September 13, 2002 - 08:43   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Quickly, an update on Florida right now. We continue to watch this scenario down here that is unfolding. Two cars stopped in the early morning hours. Authorities have responded and earlier, we were talking about the possibility of detonating at least some material that was taken out of the one of the cars, possibly two of the cars after bomb-sniffing dogs were called and apparently did take a positive hit on both vehicles, we are told.
Apparently, authorities have essentially shot a bullet into some sort of backpack or some piece of luggage. What happened as a result of that is not clear just yet.

Before we get to John Zarrella, this all came about after a woman up in Calhoun, Georgia, which is a considerable distance from this location here in Southern Florida. Apparently, she overheard a conversation about three men talking about some sort of terrorist activity being planned and pulled off somewhere in Miami, Florida on the 13th, which would be today, Friday the 13th.

Well, Calhoun, Georgia, by the map, Paula, is about the halfway mark between Chattanooga, Tennessee and Atlanta, Georgia, and this won't show it clearly, but I can tell you after living down there for about seven years, by car, from Calhoun, Georgia to this part of Naples, Florida, you're talking at least 12 hours. So how all the time sequence fits into this is quite unclear right now, and whether this is even connected to the woman's phone call in Georgia, we do not know. But John Zarrella can probably sort it out for us better than we can.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: I will tell you, before we get to John, though, the one point of this story that makes no sense to me at all is if these alleged plotters were serious about their September 13 project, why would they have run a toll booth?

HEMMER: Very good question, and Zarrella is working it for us. John, you back on the phone?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF: I'm here, Bill.

HEMMER: All right. They shot a bullet into one of these bags, apparently. What happened as a result, do you know?

ZARRELLA: Well, apparently, from what we are hearing, that there was no indication of any explosion but again -- nothing happened, I guess, is probably the good thing, that nothing dramatic happened when they shot the bullet. We had heard that they had detonated it. I guess what it has come down to now, apparently, is that it was a bullet. Now, your point about the drive from Calhoun, Georgia, well-taken. It is a long haul. It's 12 hours, and our understanding is that other than to stop at that restaurant in Calhoun where these men were apparently overheard making these remarks, the intent was to drive straight through and come on through.

Now, before they got to Calhoun, I guess the question is where were they before Calhoun, Georgia, and what we are hearing, though, totally unconfirmed is that they had been further north on I-75 and were continuing down I-75 and that this stop on -- in Calhoun was just off of Interstate 75. So that does not appear, and I don't know if you guys have been reporting this yet this morning, it does not appear to have been where they started their trip to Florida from.

HEMMER: John, let me stop you. Two questions here. Do you know when the woman apparently overheard this conversation?

ZARRELLA: Don't have a definitive. We understand it was very early in the morning, although not this morning. It may have been yesterday morning and, thus, the 12 hours.

HEMMER: OK. OK. Second, apparently, three men have been apprehended. Do we know anything about their identities?

ZARRELLA: Nothing at all about their identities, and we just can't jump to any conclusions about that because we are not hearing definitively who they may be or where they may be from.

HEMMER: OK. Twenty mile stretch shut down, it's pretty much, I don't want to say no man's land, but it is not a heavily trafficked area in the Sunshine State. We do know that for a fact, don't we John?

ZARRELLA: No question about it, Bill. You're getting over to the Naples area. It's very rural out in that part of western Collier County. It's a lot of swamp out there, a lot of alligators out there, so no, it is a modestly inhabited area of western -- well, it would be of Collier County on the western side.

HEMMER: You know, Paula, the other thing we talked about is the level of paranoia that has gripped a large part of the country, especially with the one-year mark this past Wednesday for the 9/11 events from last year. And don't want to throw too much water on this right now, because authorities are clearly taking it seriously.

ZAHN: Sure. But there are people in our audience that are wondering, because I've seen some of the e-mails, whether this is just pure overreaction on authorities' part, but as you said, the fact that the FBI is there and Susan Candiotti said ATF will get involved in this thing, you got the local sheriff's deputies on the ground, this is exactly, I guess, what they've got to do, to make sure it isn't what is alleged.

HEMMER: John, maybe you could shed some greater clarification. Within the state of Florida, what have you picked up on over the past several months in terms of authorities' response when you get threats, be it at airports, be it at truck stops, be it wherever in the state of Florida? John, you still with us? I think we lost him.

ZARRELLA: No, I'm still here. Hello?

HEMMER: John, did you hear the question?

ZARRELLA: Yes, I did.

HEMMER: I just want to get a better sense of how Florida authorities have reacted in the past several months, given phoned in threats, given the possibility of suspicious items here or there, or suspicious people here or there.

ZARRELLA: Well, we have had two recent incidents. One was at Miami International Airport where someone had thrown something into, as it turns out, a trash container and they had some pepper spray, as it turned out to be. And the authorities moved in quickly. They sealed off the concourse. They sealed the whole area off. We had federal authorities, had the airport authorities. You also had an incident at Port of Miami where they thought there were some suspicious containers that had shown up and again, immediately, federal, state, and local authorities moved in.

Those are two recent incidents, and in both of those incidents, the response was very, very swift and effective, and in both of those incidents, it turned out to be nothing. Again, we may be, hopefully, dealing with the same sort of thing ultimately here, that it turns out to be nothing, but they're not taking this, really, with any more or any less seriousness than they did in those other two recent incidents that have happened.

HEMMER: Back up just a little bit. Let's go over some facts here. The way we understand it, one car apparently ran a toll booth just south of Naples getting on to this stretch of I-75, correct?

ZARRELLA: That is correct.

HEMMER: And then after that car was pulled over, a second car pulled up behind them, correct?

ZARRELLA: That is correct.

HEMMER: One would think there is a relationship between the people in these two cars, is there any confirmation on that?

ZARRELLA: That -- no confirmation of that, just an assumption.

HEMMER: OK. We're watching this right now, and to bring you up to speed, apparently authorities are responding to some sort of conversation that was heard up in Calhoun, Georgia, well north of this location, where a woman in a restaurant overheard three men talking about the possibility for a terrorist activity to be carried out on this day in Miami, Florida. What we are seeing right now is a result, possibly, of that. We don't know, but we know there are two cars pulled over and authorities are looking into it. ZAHN: And in just moments, we will be linked up with somebody from the Florida highway patrol that was involved in this action on the ground. I wanted to quickly, John, ask you a question. John is not here.

Someone in the studio raised the point of the Turkey Point nuclear power plant being about 50 miles away from here. I just wanted to ask him what the level of security is in the place at the power plant.

Let's turn to Lieutenant John Bagnardi of the Florida Highway patrol.

Sir, thank you very much for joining us.

Can you tell what's going on at the scene right now?

LT. JOHN BAGNARDI, FLORIDA HIGHWAY PATROL: We're till in that stage of searching. Bomb squad folks are still searching, and gathering evidence. The road is from state road 29, which is roughly mile marker 80, on Alligator Alley, I-75, to the West Coast, around mile maker 100, so there is a about 20-mile stretch of road that is still closed for this investigation for both of course the safety of the officers that are there working the scene itself.

I'm not on the scene. I'm actually on the west side -- or the east side, I'm sorry, the Ft. Lauderdale side of the road closure.

ZAHN: Can you tell us how many investigators are on the scene, or just give us a sense of how many different agencies are involved at this hour?

BAGNARDI: I do not know the actual number of personnel on the scene, as I have only seen news reports and, of course, we have a restricted fly zone. So I'm seeing a lot of the same things that you're seeing. The different agencies on the scene. Of course, the Collier County Sheriff's Department deserves enormous credit for their deputies spotting these vehicles and actually making the stop to initiate this, but the Collier County Sheriff's Office, the Florida Highway Patrol, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and I don't know what other additional agencies. Those are just the main agencies there that are actually working the scene.

ZAHN: Lieutenant, I recognize you're not at the exact point where they are collecting this evidence, but you made the point they are still searching and gathering evidence. Have you been given any indication as to what they found?

BAGNARDI: I'm not actually at liberty to discuss that, because it has not been confirmed. There are -- the bomb technicians are very concerned with things that they found, and that's why it's taking a long time to properly search for safety and documentation reason, for evidence, if it turns out to be any type of explosive device. Obviously, early on, the bomb detection dog did alert to the vehicles, which doesn't necessarily mean that they are actually explosives in the vehicle. They could have been transported. The dogs are that keen where they are going to pick up on that scent, and that's why you take your time, and the professional bomb technician folks know the speed that they can work at, and that's why it's so time consuming.

ZAHN: Can you confirm for us whether there has been any detonation on-site?

BAGNARDI: I cannot -- well, actually, there was some type of detonation that I watched on a local TV station. What they are actually detonating, I have no idea. I don't have confirmation on that, and I don't know what it was. I just saw the same thing that public saw.

ZAHN: And, John Zarrella, our Miami bureau chief, was reporting that someone was saying that some kind of bullet had been either shot into the vehicle or into something inside the van. Can you confirm that?

BAGNARDI: I do not know the bomb technician procedures. I, obviously, am nowhere close to a bomb technician. That may be instruments or things they may shoot into the vehicle for their purposes. I don't know what they were. I can't confirm or comment on that.

ZAHN: Of course, lieutenant, I think we have to recognize people looking at what we are watching unfolding on the screen might, right now, might be saying what the heck is going on? Could they be overreacting here? Help us better understand the context under which officers are taking this so seriously. Obviously, you've explained to us that these bomb detection bombs picked up some sort of scent. It doesn't necessarily mean the stuff was still inside the vans, but it could be the point that the vans were used to transporter stuff. Give us some perspective on this.

BAGNARDI: The easiest to think of it as you as a private citizen, if I were to send you out to find a piece of explosive and what to do with it. We are not -- the everyday officer is not the expert. That is why we have bomb technician. And based upon what's happened in our country over the year, you don't ever, ever, ever, ever want to take something lightly. It's just like everybody working together. You had a private citizen that overheard a conversation that started this bulletin which led to these vehicles being stopped, which led to the dogs detecting that there were explosives at sometime in this vehicle or in the vehicle. And, of course, we are dealing with human lives here.

Even those these are expert bomb technicians, there is an explosive device and they are working on one and it happens to trigger another one, you are going to have loss of life. You never want to treat it lightly. It's very time consuming. You need to gather your evidence as you go along also.

It's a tedious process. You want to do things right and do things safely. Whether it's an overreaction or not, honestly, I can't be more frank in saying we don't care if it's an overreaction or not, because we want to be safe. Those officers and those folks out there working that scene need to go home tonight, and that's why we take things the way we do things meticulously and methodically and get them done right, because we won't get a second chance if we detonate a device. We need to document that also.

ZAHN: I know in my conversation earlier on the morning from someone on the Collier's sheriff's department, she pointed out the suspects were being held at the scene. Do you know if they are still there?

BAGNARDI: I do not know that aspect of that. I've heard both from her, the public information officer from Collier County, that they were at the scene, and then I've also heard reports that the people were taken from the scene. I do not know that.

ZAHN: We also don't know what the suspects are actually -- why they are actual suspects at this hour. I'm just curious whether the Florida Highway Patrol has been given any additional information as to who these men might be.

BAGNARDI: We have not. It's really -- our personnel don't really need to know that aspect of it. We have investigators working on it. We are the largest state law enforcement uniform decision. Of course, we control the highways, and that's why, you know, our biggest involvement -- and the Collier County Sheriff's department and the Florida Highway Patrol of Naples worked hand in hand. We are out here on Alligator Alley, which is essentially in the middle of the Everglades, and we work a hand in hand with them, and we are probably the first response agency to assist them.

As far as knowing identities and knowing that, that is not pertinent to us at this time. It's working this scene and keeping everything secure.

ZAHN: Lieutenant, are you seeing the same pictures I am from WFOR at this hour?

BAGNARDI: I am not seeing anything. I'm in my car on my way out to the road closure.

ZAHN: You so accurately described what you saw was going on at the scene, with ATF, the FBI involed, the Florida -- the highway department, and the Collier County Sheriff's Department. It just appears as though the process you explained of gathering evidence is taking place. You can see probably close to a dozen folks here sifting through stuff. I know you've given the Collier County Sheriff's Department a great deal of credit for actually being able to get to these vans. From the point at which one of these vans didn't pay a toll and ran the toll, how long did it take, do you know, officers to get to them?

BAGNARDI: The information that I have is the toll plaza there is roughly the 100-mile marker, 99, 100 mile marker. The stop, to my knowledge, the information I was given was made at the 92-mile marker. So that's roughly eight miles, and to reiterate, Sheriff Hunter from Collier County apparently apparently was giving his report. He was eight miles west of the scene, so that would indicate that rougly eight miles away from the toll plaza.

ZAHN: Is there any indication a chase took place?

BAGNARDI: Not to my knowledge. It may have been the deputy simply hedging up to the vehicle. This is a 70-mile-an-hour zone, and you can travel quite a distance in a matter of seconds. I don't know that aspect of it, and I have not been briefed on that.

ZAHN: I hate to have you speculate here, but one of the more striking things about this story, if these guys are serious about what they are being accused of doing by a woman who overheard this conversation in a restaraunt, who heard these three guys talking about a Friday the 13th potential attack on the city of Miami.

The fact that they would run a toll plaza without paying defies any sort of logic here. What did you think when you heard that?

BAGNARDI: I really don't know. It could have been the situation where they saw the deputy, and you know, may have become scarce. The -- last night the information was out on all the news entities that, you know, vehicles that were being looked for, although it was the middle of the night.

And that is why I continuously give enormous credit to the deputy. I do not have his name. I wish I did. Because, I don't think you understand it. It's no different than the rest of country all looking for these vehicles. And here's this one is one guy in Collier County in the middle of the Everglades that spots them and does a stop. It's that needle in the haystack. And that's why I keep giving them enormous credit there. But, why they did that. You know, I hate to speculate. Maybe they saw the deputy and got spooked and said, you know, let's go.

But then again in the same breath, I don't know why they stopped, if that was the case. Sometimes, you know, folks want to get caught. I don't really know that. I really -- it doesn't really help for me to speculate because it's only my personal opinion.

ZAHN: Lieutenant Bagnardi is of the Florida Highway Department. If you could stand by just for about 15 seconds or so, I wanted to let people who are joining us for the first time this morning at the top of the hour here on American Morning what they're looking at. You're looking at a 20 mile section of Interstate 75 that has been closed off as well as a no-fly zone imposed over it after a Collier County sheriff's department was tipped off by Georgia authorities that a woman in Calhoun, Georgia, had overheard a conversation that three men were talking about a potential attack on the city of Miami. And Lieutenant Bagnardi is still with us. Lieutenant, once again explain to us who you believe is on the scene right now investigating this?

BAGNARDI: Yes, again, the initial agency was a Collier County sheriff's department. There's officials from my agency, the Florida Highway Patrol, on scene at this thing. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is our investigative state branch. The FBI and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and I would imagine other various agencies (UNINTELLIGIBLE). But I am sure that everybody that has to be there is there.

ZAHN: And I hate to have you go through this again, but there a lot of folks just joining us for the first time this morning. Tell us what you've learned about the bomb sniffing dogs that are on the scene.

BAGNARDI: What I know was after the Collier County deputy stopped the vehicle he requested -- the subjects were uncooperative -- requested the bomb detection dogs. The dogs responded, alerted to the vehicle. And that alert simply means that: one, there could be explosives in the vehicle or they could have been transported at some time in that vehicle, meaning they could -- the dogs are very keen. Their senses are obviously much, much greater than humans. They detect even if the vehicle had carried explosives at a time and once they alerted to that, that's when the bomb technicians from Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire were called in. And that's where this process of searching the vehicles, and searching for evidence has begun. It started this morning. And of course, it's after 9:00 a.m. this morning and continues.

ZAHN: Lieutenant Bagnardi has been such a help here. We should explain that he is not on the scene. He's on one of the perimeter areas where the highway is closed off. But you have some excellent information here. You just said that the suspects were not cooperative when they were eventually stopped. Can you explain to us what your understanding is and what happened.

BAGANARDI: All I can really elaborate on is that they refused any consent of a search, of a physical search the vehicle, as would any motor vehicle that is stopped, the driver of the vehicle, if an officer asks for consent to search the vehicle, whether it's for explosives, contraband of any sort, whatever suspicions, you can volunteer as an owner of a vehicle you operate you can consent to a search of your vehicle. These folks were adamant right away you are not searching my vehicle. That's why the dogs are brought in, where they walk around and they -- basically the same place the public, in plain view and of course their senses are so much keener than humans. That that's where the dogs are so vital in law enforcement work that they alerted to this, indicating that there was possibly explosives in these vehicles or had been transferred -- transported.

And of course gathered with the other evidence or the information that was received, it becomes, you know, a puzzle that is being put together. There is no one specific incident that ties this together. Of course, it started in Georgia, the bulletin goes out, comments that were made, and that's why as a country we take comments very, very seriously. We don't joke about bomb scares or things to that nature. Because, the country is at a heightened alert and it's everyone's responsibility to help do their part. And that is, I think, what this lady did in Georgia. And you see what it has led to.

ZAHN: Lieutenant, I know you are hold up in your patrol car. But I know earlier you were watching right along with us as you saw what appeared to be a detonation. Describe to us what you saw. That happened, I guess about 20 minutes or so ago. BAGNARDI: Yeah, actually I've been watching the news since the 5:00 newscast. The areas are, of course, sterilized by the bomb technicians. The bomb technicians are clad in bomb protective gear that is very, very heavy and my understanding that it is very stressful or very exhausting to be in those suits for more than 15 or 20 minutes. And that's another reason that it's very time consuming.

They are meticulously searching this. As they go through each piece of the vehicle. As you can imagine, you just think of our own -- you can hide explosive anywhere in a car. So, it's not just the common areas of a vehicle that need to be searched, it's the entire vehicles. There are two of them. I don't know if anything has been found that raises more concerns. But you need to do this slow and methodical because if a mistake is made and someone is injured, there's no coming back from that. And that's why it's so -- it's scary.

ZAHN: Lieutenant Bagnardi, we haven't been able to confirm whether these two vehicles and the men in the two vehicles are related, can you?

BAGNARDI: The only information I have to that is that these are both of the two vehicles that were put on bulletins to be on the lookout for, associated with the information out of Georgia.

ZAHN: And then the other point that has been raised here, is when you look at the map, which we're going to do now, the geography of the state, someone pointed out that the Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant may be more than a couple dozen miles away. What is the level of concern there about the vulnerability of power plants in your state? I'm not saying the two of these are connected at all, but certainly when you look at the geography, you can't ignore the fact that power plant exists. Lieutenant, are still with us?

Well, I wouldn't be surprised if there's no battery left in that cell phone. Lieutenant Bagnardi has been with us for most of the last 25 minutes. He's of the Florida Highway Patrol. He had a lot of information for us, basically describing to us the very methodical, meticulous process that's taking place, describing some of the suits that the bomb squad is using right now, how heavy they are, how uncomfortable they are and also, Bill, talking about the kind of gathering of evidence that's taking place. You can't really make this out from the pictures here. But the fact that you have offices or agents from ATF on the ground, FBI, the Florida Highway Patrol, the Florida Department of -- let me get this right -- Law Enforcement, tells you that whatever is going down here is sufficiently serious enough that they're going to figure out what is lurking.

HEMMER: One thing he said, Paula, he said -- quote -- we don't care if it's an overreaction. I think that's quite evident from this picture right here. They've laid a red carpet essentially over the shoulder on the highway running east-west in this direction here. There is a substantial amount of equipment on that carpet. That large van there you see just off the carpet, it appears to me on the trailer behind it, I don't know it because we're not on the ground there, that there's some sort of explosive device on the back of that trailer. A lot of times used for bomb squads that essentially come in, will drop suspicious packages down into that canister you see, right underneath the word live in the upper left hand screen there. Two more things just picking up on here quickly, Paula. Mike Brooks is an investigative analyst that we use, a former detective in Washington D.C. We talked about shooting a bullet into one of these packages. He calls it a render safe procedure. They don't necessarily detonate it. But they'll shoot a bullet in the package to see if there is any reaction there. And apparently, based on everything we've heard right now, there was no reaction other than some sort of puff of smoke, which may have represented the ballistics, simply the bullet going into the package.

ZAHN: Although what the Lieutenant described, I guess which should make everyone think twice about the story, and whether there is a legitimate threat here or not, is the fact that the bomb squad dogs that were brought to the scene were -- quote -- alerted to the vehicle. Those are the exact words the lieutenant used. And he said that doesn't necessarily mean that there are explosives inside those vehicles, but that at some point in time, explosives may have been transferred in those vehicles.

HEMMER: Yes, and I think we talked about the geography. Getting from Calhoun, Georgia all the way down to southwestern Florida takes a considerable amount of time. Simple geography tells me it takes 12 hours minimum, and that's if you're moving at a really good clip on a highway. But the fact that he said both vehicles that had been stopped fit the description that went out in the bulletin that originally came from Calhoun, Georgia, I found that quite interesting.

ZAHN: That's the first time that we've been able to establish that link.

HEMMER: Very true, very true. The other thing I saw there, as we watch the picture, there were television crews moving in the opposite direction toward the scene, so it is quite likely we could have a reporter on the scene within minutes down there.

ZAHN: We have another reporter on the scene in Washington, Jeanne Meserve, who is going to give us some better context now on what this means, as we see this unfold on live television -- Jeanne, I don't know whether you heard any of what Lt. Bagnardi had to say, but he says at this point, they don't even care if this ends up being an overreaction, that the country is now living in the -- second highest state of alert, and they have got to take this seriously.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That is right, Paula, and you are seeing this sort of thing happening all over the country as a result of this threat level orange that we're on. Security has stepped up all over the place, in local jurisdictions, at the state level, also by federal agencies.

Individuals are being asked to keep their eyes and ears open, as this woman in Georgia who overheard this conversation apparently was.

So they are going to be seeing more things than they have been in recent days. We've seen instances where buildings have been evacuated, where planes have been put on the ground, where hospitals have been put on alert all because people have received information that was of concern.

Everything is being investigated and investigated thoroughly as this incident is. They may turn up some bad people along the way, but it does not necessarily mean that any of these incidents are going to have anything to do with terrorism. That is the cautionary word.

ZAHN: Jeanne, I know you have been working on another story today, and we pulled you into this, and I am just curious if you have heard any reaction from any of your sources in Washington, from any federal agency and what this means?

MESERVE: About this specific incident, I can tell you that the Office of Homeland Security says they are monitoring it in this situation. At this stage, in most of these situations, it is local officials who are going to know more about the specifics of what is happening. People here, obviously, trying to keep an eye, not just on this, but on other possible things happening around the country.

This morning, we still -- we have this ship off the coast of New Jersey, doesn't appear to be anything of significant concern, as Susan Candiotti reported earlier, but they are keeping their eyes on a number of different things, as well as on the intelligence as it comes in to see if they see anything new and different that should set off alarm bells. That is being assessed on a constant basis, that is what is going to determine how long we stay on this orange threat alert level.

The word from the Office of Homeland Security is that we are going to stay on orange threat level for the immediate future, probably through next week, although a spokesman for the office says he is hopeful that it will be lowered sometime in the not too distant future -- Paula.

ZAHN: The process of communicating between all of these federal agencies is very complicated, and you just mentioned the Homeland Security Department is also monitoring this. Give us a better idea, when a tip like this is passed from Georgia authorities to Florida authorities, how long it takes for the FBI to get involved, the ATF and some of these other federal agencies we are talking about this morning.

MESERVE: I think that is probably a very individualized situation. It is going to depend on the magnitude of the threat, how serious it seems to be. I think there is probably fairly instantaneous communication up the food chain, so the folks in Washington are aware of what is happening.

I suspect also it has something to do with federal assets, and where they are located. You know, if you are near a major city, if there is a FBI agent -- FBI office there, for instance, there are joint terrorism task forces that have been set up all around the country. These are spearheaded by the local FBI offices, but they also involve local and state officials. These are the organizations that would first jump to action and be involved in a situation like this. And local law enforcement critical. They are called first responders for a very obvious reason. They are the ones who are first on the scene, they are the ones who give the first and most accurate assessment, really.

ZAHN: Jeanne, just stand by for a moment, because I just wanted to update folks who are just joining us now as to what they are seeing unfold on the screen here.

Authorities in Florida have closed down about a 20-mile section of a major East-West highway. They have taken three people into custody after a reported terror alert. This all got started -- and we're not exactly sure when this conversation took place, we believe it to be sometime yesterday, but a woman in a Calhoun, Georgia restaurant overheard a conversation that was taking place between three men, and she overheard what she thought was the plotting of a plan against a terrorist attack against Miami. We are told by authorities these men then got into two separate vans, and at some point, Georgia authorities tipped off Florida authorities these were heading south.

And it was about 8 miles after these guys went through this toll booth you are looking at now, where they actually ran the toll that authorities finally stopped them, according to Lt. Bagnardi from the Florida Highway Patrol. These guys were not cooperative when stopped, they did not want their car searched. Nevertheless, the search did happen.

The bomb sniffing dogs were alerted to the -- the kind of language they use in law enforcement -- "alerted to" the vehicle, means they obviously picked up some sort of scent of something that might be involved in the manufacture of a bomb. That doesn't mean that there necessarily was a bomb being transported at that point, but clearly, some of those materials might have been in the vehicle at one time.

Let's go back to Jeanne Meserve again to help us better understand why everybody is so concerned about this story. In the end, it may be nothing more than a bad tip, an overreaction, but Lt. Bagnardi says we don't care. We just to make sure the officers who are on the scene right now go home tonight.

MESERVE: That's right. And it is because we are on the threat level orange they got this -- specific and credible intelligence information that there was the possibility of terrorist action. Of course, the reports, when the threat was elevated indicated that the threats were against U.S. facilities in Southeast Asia, that there was a risk of suicide bombing in the Middle East. The real concern seemed to be centered around the anniversary date of September 11, but I had one official say to me on the 11th, don't think just because the date has changed that the threat level is going to change. It is not going to work that way. There is sort of a zone of concern around that date.

And so they are continuing to assess this on a continual basis. Apparently, they haven't seen enough to make them want to relax that orange level right now.

One government official telling me yesterday, Given what we're seeing right now, there is no rationale for either taking the threat level up or taking it down. So orange is where we are going to stay. What it means is that in many places, local authorities are very much on their toes, keeping an eye on critical infrastructure, doing more patrols, encouraging the public to come forward with anything they might have overheard.

But let me tell you, Paula, it isn't uniform. It isn't across the country. This is a threat alert system that is completely voluntary. We have been told by the president of the International Association of Police Chiefs that there are some localities that really didn't respond significantly at all when the threat level went up because they felt their communities really weren't the issue here, and the National League of Cities says one factor is money, quite simply, that the cities just don't have the funding to keep up high staffing levels, even for as long as a week, particularly when the fiscal situation for cities is so grim.

But many places' eyes are being kept open. Things like this are being detected, things like this will be checked out very, very thoroughly as this one is, but very few of them, if any, may turn out to be anything of true significance -- Paula.

ZAHN: Jeanne, we'd love for you to stand by as Bill and I sort of confirm the point you made earlier, which I think is a great point that you raised, one of the concerns that the government has every time they change the level of alert is that they might cause unnecessary fear and panic, and what I think the attorney general has said all along, the fact is, we need extra eyes and ears out there. If it is true that this woman accurately heard this conversation in this restaurant, this is exactly, I guess, what the government wants us to do.

HEMMER: Great point, and the alert essentially came out the other day. Not necessarily, we've been led -- because there was a threat that was happening in this country, but actually there were threats they were picking up in a lot of chatter, they call it, in Southeast Asia, a couple of embassies shut down on the island of Java in Indonesia.

Nonetheless, two things, Paula. The AP is now reporting that both cars had Illinois license tags, and Mark Potter is near the scene, I believe -- Mark, are you with us now?

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I am.

HEMMER: Yes, hi, where are you first, and tell us what you have.

POTTER: Well, I am on I-75 heading south to the scene. We are south of Tampa, heading towards Naples. I just had a conversation with Mike Oller (ph) who is with the Southwest Florida Regional Bomb Squad, that is the umbrella organization that oversees -- the State Fire Marshal's Office is working with them, the Lee and Collier County Sheriff's Department. He is on the scene, and he says right now, that the search of the car is about 25 percent completed. It is a very, very laborious process, it is very slow.

He said that a preliminary inspection of both cars, a visual inspection, has found so far nothing untoward. They have searched some items quite thoroughly, and one item they actually had to blow apart because they don't know exactly what it was. They have some X- ray devices there, and they looked inside this package, and they saw some wires, and they couldn't satisfy themselves that they knew what that was, so they used a water canon device to blow apart the package, and after doing that, they realized it was some sort of medical equipment. It was benign, nothing to worry about. And so now they have gone on with the rest of their search.

They are in a little bit of a pause mode right now because they are waiting for a backup, which, actually, as we just finished our conversation a moment ago, was arriving, a backup from the Miami-Dade Police Department bomb squad. They were coming over with extra equipment and personnel, including a robot device they were going to use to go through the car. And they slowed everything down until those officers could get on scene and get set up. And that is the process they are in right now.

But the basic information that he has given us is that they have gone through the cars preliminarily, they do not see anything that gives them concern. But of course, they now have to go through all of its material. It is a very slow process.

I asked him if he could tell pus the status of detainees. He could not. Said they are in clutches of Collier County Sheriff's Department and the FBI. But at least from the bomb squad perspective, we have that information.

He also talked -- if I might, just for a second -- about the dogs who alerted on these two cars. He said these gods are quite accurate, but it doesn't mean that they have found a bomb. It could be that there has been some (UNINTELLIGIBLE) device, including fire crackers in the car in the past. It might be there now, it might not. It certainly is an important alert that they follow very carefully, but it is not definitive as an explanation for what is there. That is why they are doing what they are now, this laborious search. But it could take some period of time.

HEMMER: Mark, it appears to be quite extensive and thorough, and even though we've seen threats many times in the past, Paula, what we're seeing right now with all this equipment simply being laid out on the highway there at 9:00 in the morning Eastern time in Florida gives us a indication of how serious they are taking this.

And Mark, I don't know how long it is going to take to get on the scene, but one question we would love to get answered right now is the extent to which this investigation is now being carried out. They have brought in a tent, Mark -- I don't know if you can see this from any monitor you've watched prior to getting in the car -- they have brought in a tent, they have a carpet that's the is laid out on the shoulder of the highway, a substantial amount of equipment being laid out as well. Did you get indication from the people you talked to as to where so extensive this soon?

POTTER: The tent is for protection from the Florida sun. If we were set up out there, we would do the same. That is not unusual, and the carpet is to protect the evidence. But you are right, your basic point is correct. They are throwing all resources they need into this one just in a abundance of caution, if nothing else. The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and state police, local authorities from Lee and Collier and Miami-Dade counties are there, the state Fire Marshall's Office -- this is getting major treatment, red carpet treatment, if you would, give what you've seen out there on the scene.

So this is unusual in that regard, the number of agencies that are responding. However, what they are doing on the scene probably is typical for what you would do. A bomb squad situation is a precarious situation by definition. And so they set these things up in a particular way to make sure that everybody is safe. I don't think that part is unusual. But the resources being thrown into it certainly is not something you normally see.

HEMMER: This next point may be a bit broad, but The Associated Press is reporting that both cars have Illinois license plates. Anything on that front, Mark?

POTTER: I'm sorry, I can't address that. No, I do not know the significant of that and whether that's true.

Again, I was interested in what the bomb squad member said, what Mike had to say, that in their preliminary go-over of the two cars, they have not seen anything at this stage that they gives them concern. There was that one package that they blew up, and it turned out to be medical equipment.

HEMMER: All right.

To quote the official that Paula talked to about 30 minutes ago, we do not care if it is an overreaction. These men want to at home tonight.

Thank you, Mark.

ZAHN: Mark, one thing that I am fascinated by is timeline here. You were describing to Bill just how meticulous tick house this process is and how long it is going to take. And I'm thinking that about an hour ago, when we came to the shot, someone from the Collier Sheriff's Department just confirmed they were starting the search. So you have got 25 percent of this stuff searched. You said they haven't seen anything that gives them concern. This visual inspection, and then once you bring in the robot, this could go on for hours, right?

POTTER: I think that is right. They do not really feel they have much reason to rush. They have got this scene under control. They have the preliminary assessment that they are not seeing anything that needs to be gotten to immediately. There was that one item, and they got to that quickly. Now that they have laid out the scene, they think they can be meticulous and take their time and they are going to do it. Safety is a huge concern with bomb squad personnel.

And also the thoroughness of the investigation is the cornerstone of what they are doing. So it would explain why they are taking this approach, and I think your guess, your assessment is correct: This could take some time before they can finally clear that scene.

ZAHN: Mark, can you clarify something for us. I know you were explaining that they used this water cannon device to blow one item apart that looked suspicion and ended up this benign medical equipment. Lieutenant Bernardi (ph) of the Florida Highway Patrol had thought at one point an hour ago he had seen a detonation; could it be that was actually what he was seeing unfold on local television? Did it look like that?

POTTER: Well, I about believe they are one and the same. I had Mike go over that with me. I've seen them actually detonate packages before. Outside an office where I used to work they blew up a suitcase one time, scared the daylights out of all of us. They actually blew it up. I guess they have gotten more sophisticated now and find that a water cannon does less damage to the material inside and you have a better chance of assessing later what it is than if you use an explosive device.

But it does -- it's quite powerful, and it might have created the sound that frightened the people on the scene or led them to believe it was an explosion. I think wore talking about the same thing.

There has only been one incident, where they went into one package, as described by Mike from the bomb squad. So I think that's what that is.

ZAHN: Then you told Bill you were waiting, as are all the officials on the scene, for this robot device. What is robot device going to be able to do that their screening devices haven't been able to do?

POTTER: It can go into -- if you have ever seen these things work, they are controlled by remote control, and they can go into dicey areas that you might not want to send a human. So they can crawl in. They are amazing devices. I remember after the Oklahoma City bombing at Terry Nichols' house, in Kansas, they sent that thing in. They can watch what the robot sees. The robot goes in first. It protects the people outside from having to go into an area that they are concerned about. So I think they are going to -- my guess, based on fact of what I've seen in the past -- they are going to use that to maybe go into the trunk of the car or see if there is anything else or underneath that they want to look at before they send a human being in there to deal with it.

ZAHN: So Mark, once again, I think, if I am remembering this, you are saying that suspects may have been taken from the scene? Or do we know that yet?

POTTER: I do not know that. The gentleman that I spoke to could not confirm that. He said that they are in the control of the FBI and the Collier County Sheriff's Department. So, he -- but he on scene, he could not see them. He didn't know where they were.

ZAHN: Mark, are you looking at same picture we are?

POTTER: I am in a car. I am looking at bad weather as we head south. Paula, I'm sorry, I have no monitor.

ZAHN: There is a ramp that has just been set up against the back of a van. This could be the robot that is arriving. Is this about the time it was expected to get there?

POTTER: The -- Mike, again the gentleman from the bomb squad, said that they were just arriving. Mike Oler (ph) said that the Miami-Dade County people were just arriving as we were hanging up the phone and I was (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on you. So they are on the scene, apparently.

You are probably right. They are going to have that thing roll out of there in a minute.

ZAHN: We got some new information in from the FBI.

Let's go to Jeanne Meserve, that's standing by in our Washington bureau -- Jeanne.

MESERVE: Paula, Kelli Arena has been talking to her sources over at the Justice Department and she adds this: that FBI officials say there has been no new intelligence that has come in reporting possible terrorist target in U.S. and no information about possible targets in Florida. She adds that FBI officials have warned in the past about the possibility of sympathizers or copycatters trying to do something around the September 11 anniversary. Today, the 13th, we're still in the zone around that date, and that Orange threat level is persisting for that very reason -- Paula.

ZAHN: Everybody has been making reference to the fact that today is Friday the 13th, so there is always the potential not only of copy cat thing, just an absolute kook trying to something like this to breed a lot of paranoia. But the fact is, Jeanne, you got the Homeland Security monitoring this, you got ATF on the ground, FBI on the ground, and about five different Florida state agencies on the ground here.

Jeanne, give us some perspective on this reaction. I think you heard Lieutenant Bagnardi tell us earlier today, you know, who cares if we're overreacting. We want to make sure everyone on the scene goes home tonight.

MESERVE: Yes, the watchword for the past week has been out of an abundance of caution, they're checking it out, and that is what you are seeing here. A lot more things are being detected because security has been ratcheted up all across the board, and because citizens like this woman in Georgia have been hearing thing and reporting them into authorities, they are investigating more stuff, and investigating them very, very thoroughly, taking things seriously because of this threat level. As I said before, it doesn't mean any of this will turn out to be of great significance or any of it will have anything to do with terrorism, but out of an abundance of caution, they are looking at this sort of event extraordinarily carefully.

ZAHN: Thanks, Jeanne.

HEMMER: We talk talked earlier about Mike Brooks, the man we used oftentimes for investigations and police work, used to work in D.C. Now living in Atlanta, Georgia.

Mike, are you with us now on the phone?

MIKE BROOKS, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Yes I am, Bill.

HEMMER: Listen, you described earlier to us, by way of e-mail, what's called a render-safe procedure. Give us a better idea of how that's carried out by officials on the scene here?

BROOKS: What you've been seeing so far this morning, Bill, was the bomb squad...

HEMMER: All right, Mike, we are missing you a little bit on the telephone line there.

Let me know if we get Mike back up there, so we can hear his audio.

ZAHN: Did he say in his e-mail what he thought it was.

HEMMER: What he said was, we have been talking about detonating explosives, which sometimes happens. The bomb squad is on the scene. We have seen that clearly in the vehicles that are on the side of the highway.

But a render-safe procedure in essence would be when an officer would take a gun and fire into a backpack, fire at a suitcase and see if there is a reaction. Mark Potter is describing this water cannon, which is news to me, actually.

ZAHN: And he said it is now often used in situations like this, as opposed to taking a handgun or whatever you would use to fire a firearm into it.

HEMMER: Very true. The word we heard, Paula, we're not on the scene there, but the word is that we did this render-safe procedure and nothing happened, which is a good thing and a good sign.

Mike, are you back with us, Mike Brooks? Go ahead -- I was just doing in a very amateur way of describing the procedure and the technique. Give it to us from a professional level. Describe it to us.

BROOKS: We have seen earlier this morning, the vehicle in question, sending packages inside that vehicle in question, whether it is a backpack or other possible devices that they think might be a bomb. They will come up...

E.J. PICOLO, FLA. LAW ENFORCEMENT DEPT.: we received information that counterterrorism support center up at FDLA and our office of statewide intelligence that was passed on, involved domestic security concern, information was specific to vehicles and tag numbers that was seen in a location at Georgia. That information was subsequently given to Florida law enforcement. About midnight this morning, the vehicles passed through the toll booth at the west end of Alligator Alley. One of the vehicles blew through the toll booth without paying a toll. We had investigators looking for the vehicles anyway. They were subsequently stopped.

We have been out here ever since in an attempt to clear those vehicles and fully identify the occupants, determine what if any threat exists from the vehicles at this point in time, and we have brought a lot of resources in from our domestic security task force to make that happen.

With that, I'll be happy to answer any questions you might have.

QUESTION: Are they in custody? Have they been charged?

PICOLO: We are detaining the suspects. They have not been charged, subsequent to investigation.

QUESTION: Are they cooperating.

PICOLO: Somewhat, they are cooperating.

QUESTION: have they identified themselves as a nationality.

PICOLO: We have identified the three suspects.

QUESTION: Are they legal immigrants?

PICOLO: As far as we know, they are all three legal, yes.

QUESTION: Can you tell us anything about where they are from? We heard they might have ties in Chicago.

PICOLO: No, ma'am. We're not going to release any specific information at this point. It's an ongoing investigation. We need to be very careful about what we release.

QUESTION: Are they in the county?

PICOLO: They're still in Collier County, yes.

QUESTION: Are they in this location here?

PICOLO: I'm not going to confirm that at this point.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what you found inside the vehicle? It looks like there's a lot of activity.

PICOLO: Those vehicles have not been completely searched at this point of time, so the bottom line is we don't know the answer to that. We are still determining that.

QUESTION: Has any explosive material been found at this point?

PICOLO: At this point, no.

QUESTION: Did they alert the...

PICOLO: When the vehicles were initially stopped, bomb-sniffing dogs were called to the scene. Dogs did alert on both vehicles, and from that, we called the bomb team in from our task force. We have asked for reinforcement from Miami-Dade to have special equipment that will help us complete the searches. Those resources just got here. They are part of the Miami region security task force, and they will help us there.

QUESTION: Do you know if the dogs were wrong yet?

PICOLO: We don't, no.

QUESTION: Are these suspects American?

PICOLO: I'm not going to answer any questions related to their identity at this point in time.

QUESTION: Are they attached to any FBI watch lists?

PICOLO: I'm not going to answering anything specific to the suspects at this point.

QUESTION: At the very least, what would that indicate?

PICOLO: Well, there is a possibility, that some accelerant or some explosive-type material could be in the vehicles. That's all it dictates. That's why do you a search afterwards, to verify that.

QUESTION: On what grounds are you holding those people, and how long can you hold them before they are charged?

PICOLO: We are holding them subsequent to the investigation. Once we clear the vehicles, we will make a determination as to what if any charges will be filed and proceed from there.

QUESTION: Can you confirm the genesis of this?

PICOLO: I will only pass on the information that came from Georgia, and it was very specific, yes.

QUESTION: What was the conversation?

PICOLO: I won't be specific about that. But I'll tell you, the information we had was specific, the vehicles were identified by color, by tag number. We had very specific information.

QUESTION: Both vehicles?

PICOLO: Yes, both vehicles. QUESTION: And these vehicles are consistent with that information.

PICOLO: Correct.

QUESTION: Have they made reference to their faith?

PICOLO: No.

QUESTION: Any literature in their cars that talk about their faith?

PICOLO: I'm not at liberty to discuss anything in the vehicles at this point in time.

QUESTION: The conversations were very ominous. They were making reference to Americans mourning on 9/13. At this point, how serious are you taking the suspects? How serious do you think the threat is, or was?

PICOLO: We are taking it very serious until we can eliminate a threat or verify that there is a legitimate threat.

QUESTION: Do you know where they were they were going?

PICOLO: We have investigative leads. We are following up on that now.

QUESTION: Miami?

PICOLO: I'm not going to verifying that at this point.

QUESTION: Can you describe the status of alerts both for this region and for Southern Florida in general?

PICOLO: The state of alert what was advertised two days ago, three days ago by the office of homeland security nationally, which is high state of alert.

QUESTION: How credible do you feel the information coming out was, and how credible do you feel the threat is considering you have the vehicle to the men?

PICOLO: It was credible to that extent. That's why we are doing a complete investigation, to determine the entire validity of the information.

QUESTION: Does it seem too easy in some ways, the fact that the threats were so obvious and the cars showed up in the timeframe that was expected?

PICOLO: I wouldn't say it would seem easy. We are in a period of time where we can't afford to ignore valid leads. When we get solid information, we need to follow up on it. That's what we do here in Florida. We are going to keep doing that.

QUESTION: You said they weren't exactly cooperating with law enforcement. Are they being harsh toward deputies here?

PICOLO: No.

QUESTION: Did you ask they why they were in Florida?

PICOLO: A number of questions were asked of them, but I'm not going to be specific as to what those were.

QUESTION: Can you describe the ages of these men? Do you know the ages? I mean, middle-aged, young?

PICOLO: I'm not going to be specific as to their identity, their age, anything at this point in time. Again, it's all investigative at this point.

As far as I know at this time, they are all three legally in the country.

QUESTION: Did they resist at all with getting pulled over? Did any deputy describe their demeanor when they were pulled over.

PICOLO: I'm not in possession of that information. I don't believe so.

QUESTION: Were the cars rental, or private?

PICOLO: Don't know.

One of the vehicles went through the toll plaza, one stopped, and again, we had reason to stop the vehicles anyway. We would have stopped them. That added to our concern.

QUESTION: Do you have the extent of how long I-75 will be closed?

PICOLO: I would say several more hours at this point.

That's investigative at this point. We are following up on that, as we speak. And I'm not going to be specific on our investigation at this point.

QUESTION: Have you been in contact with the White House or anyone in Washington regarding this case?

PICOLO: Personally, no. We have notification protocol and domestic security task forces. I briefed the commissioner. The governor has been briefed by the commissioner, and I'm sure that information is made based on inquiries we have received since we have been oh out here this morning.

QUESTION: Are we taking this more seriously because of the date, so close to September 11th?

PICOLO: I would say had this happened two months ago, under the same circumstances, we'd be in this same position.

OK, that's it.

We will be back. My name is E.J. Picolo.

ZAHN: The Florida Department of law enforcement, in many ways, raising more questions than he answered, and I don't mean that in a pejorative way, because clearly, he is entitled not to share all of the information he has about the suspects.

He basically confirmed for the first time that suspects are known to police authorities, in his words, police knew suspects identity. He described that the suspects were somewhat cooperating, and when he was asking to elaborate on what that meant, as though they had in any way attempted to harm officers, he said that wasn't the case, but he did not elaborate to help us better understand what that meant.

The most important point he made was that no explosive material has been found at this point, but he did go on to say that dogs did alert, and in police vernacular, that means the dog picked up something. And whether he said that means that accelerant might have been in the van at some point, or something transported, you don't know. It doesn't necessarily mean something is in there now.

He seemed to indicate, Bill, that they had a lot of information on these guys. They are being detained. He won't tell us exactly where, and he won't even tell us exactly what they are being suspected of doing at this point.

But as you look at the scene, in the lower left corner of the scene, you saw this robot taken off a van and I guess taken in, I guess Mark Potter describes this adds even additional outlets when we get more information about what will be in the evidence they are gathering.

HEMMER: We believe this story all began after a woman overheard a conversation in Calhoun, Georgia, which on the map, you can see is right up near the Tennessee border, a substantial distance from where this location is.

ZAHN: What is it, 12-hour ride?

HEMMER: Minimal. It's about seven hours from Atlanta to Tampa, if you are taking your time, and it's another three or four hours down the coast of Florida along the west side, and Calhoun is probably 90 minutes north of Atlanta. Put it all together, at least a dozen hours.

Listen to what Associated Press is reporting about that conversation, though. The GBI, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, issuing the advisory after the same two cars fitting the description of that the cars were just pulled over here in Florida, after a waitress in Calhoun, Georgia overheard three men apparently of Middle Eastern descent talking about terrorist plans on Wednesday night. Wednesday night, that's critical. A lot of our discussion went back to Thursday earlier.

A Georgia woman says the men were talking about amounts of explosives and warn that Americans would -- quote -- "cry on 9/13." That's according to a police officer out of Miami, Lieutenant Bill Schwartz, who apparently got his information from officials up in Georgia. The other thing we picked up there, just a few moments ago, is that the men were uncooperative and refused to allow search of the vehicle. That's a not a statement of guilt in any way. A lot of people refuse searches all the time pending a warrant from a judge. But that helps raise suspicion we are looking at now.

The information is very specific about the automobiles, right down tag number. And that's why I think authorities feel so confident that they need to continue this search that we are watching.

ZAHN: This was one heck of an eavesdropper, isn't she? A lot of people are wondering if there is overreaction unfolding on our screens here. Lieutenant Bagnardi of Florida Highway Patrol says even if there is, so what?

HEMMER: See that right there, Paula?

ZAHN: Yes, the robot is doing its job, isn't it? Mark Potter is standing by, as I have, who has witnessed a lot of these actions, particularly news situations, Mark. I know you monitored the news conference as we did. Tell us once again what this robot will be able to do that X-ray equipment that is already in place in this water gun couldn't do that was used a little bit earlier on.

POTTER: The theory behind the robot is it serves as the eyes of the bomb squad members, the agents, the officers, without them having to risk their lives up close. It gives them a chance to get in and look at things, perhaps under the car, in wheel wells, in trunks, in seats, things like that first, before the officers get in close. And so it's a safety device, and they're used rather routinely around the country in bomb squad situations, and that's my presumption as to what they're going to do here.

You don't want and individual climbing underneath that car if have you a chance to have something else go in there with eyes that can transmit a picture back to a monitor. If have you that technology, you probably would want do that first.

(NEWS BREAK)

POTTER: Bill, I want to come back to a point you just made that you saw in an Associated Press report, that this women described these three men as men of Middle Eastern descent. I thought it was interesting that Mr. Picolo, the Florida department of law enforcement, would not answer that question when a reporter said, do you know what religion they are? Clearly reflective this environment we are living in, people fearful of doing racial profiling. Nevertheless, the Associated Press, raised this issue, did they not, of these gentlemen's descent.

HEMMER: And E.J. Picolo said, just to quote him, he said he believed that they are legal, did not offer a whole lot of information beyond that, but the story remains the same out of -- according to the Associated Press. This woman overheard these three men, apparently of Middle Eastern descent

Again, this is her story, that she related to officials, that Americans would -- quote -- "cry on 9/13." Then the bulletin went out after the woman or other people at this restaurant apparently picked up license tags numbers and description, a very detailed description for these automobiles, and put the bulletin out. That was on Wednesday. Now it is Friday morning, and all this transpired, by the way, we should remind our viewers about 1:00 a.m. Eastern Time, when one of our cars apparently ran a toll booth.

Last hour, you talked with a detective, don't want to get to speculation here, but you asked him why in the world would someone run a $1 toll booth. He said he couldn't give you an answer, but it's possible, maybe one of the drivers spotted the police officer behind them and that's what got things rolling -- possible.

(NEWS BREAK)

ZAHN: But in the meantime, bill, and I are going to stay focused on this Florida story. I think, Bill, it is interesting to note what Mark Potter reported a little bit earlier on, just how long this process might take. Fifteen minutes ago, he said his officials on the ground were telling him that the search was just about 25 percent complete, that these guys are wearing very heavy bomb suits. It is very hot today. But they are going to painstakingly go through the meticulous process of going through this car inch by inch.

HEMMER: I would love to know, Paula, what is on the ground on the shoulder of that highway, because that robot is moving in, the arm on the top is moving toward it. What is on the ground, we don't know.

Earlier, we had an image after lot of equipment on the side of the road, but that's at a different location than this here. And one would assume these are articles and items taken out of either the trunk of the car or inside the car. And the process continues. Nothing untoward is what Mark Potter reported. And apparently, at this point, no explosive material has been found, according to E.J. Picolo.

ZAHN: And, Mark, you were reporting a little bit earlier on that what Lieutenant Bagnardi had thought he seen, as well as the rest of us on TV was a detonation, when in fact it was a water gun blowing through an unidentified piece of personal equipment, and it ended up being, what, medical equipment?

POTTER: Yes, that's the only description that we got, that is some sort of medical equipment. And what prompted the procedure is they had used some sort of X-ray equipment to go over what they could get near, and they couldn't reconcile what they saw on the screen with other items in the vehicle, which seemed on the face benign.

This stuff had wires in it and all of that, and so given the fact that the dogs had alerted, and there was a terrorism alert, and that there was a concern of the possibility of explosives, they detonated that device using a water cannon, and they found it to be some sort of medical device. You know, Paula, one other thing I would like it say, I was looking through my notes that I scrambled together as quick as I could, and I was talking with Mike Orr (ph) of the bomb squad, and I notice one of the things I had neglected to say before, and that is he did describe a few items that they had found in the car, including suitcases, books, and a laptop computer, and this one I want to be careful about, but I will say it the way he said it, and then give also the caution that he gave.

He said there are also manuals found, and he described them, and I will just use his word, Islamic writing, and I presume he meant Arabic. But again, he was so cautious about it. He says, I have no idea what that is. I just have -- and he is not an expert in language, neither am I. That's his description, and again, I want to bring that forth, because of the discussion that was held earlier about the questions that have been raised about the background of these men. He does not suggest in any way that this implicates anybody. He also doesn't say that this is anything definitive. He could not say what the manuals were. I asked him.

And again, don't forget the first item that they had concerns about turned out to be benign.

That's just the facts that I throw out there with the caveat that he gave, as well as ones that I would give also, based just on what has happened so far. There was a concern that went away.

ZAHN: We all have to be very careful as we tread through this, because E.J. Pola (ph) of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement refusing to make any characterization of who these suspects were and what countries they came from.

Nevertheless, Bill, you were saying The Associated Press has made quite clear through the woman who apparently overheard this conversation in Calhoun, Georgia, that she -- was it she that described these men?

HEMMER: She was a waitress in a restaurant in Calhoun, Georgia. Which restaurant I don't know. Whether or not her story holds up, we don't know. But that's what she reported to authorities.

Hey, Mark, do you know, are there cameras on those robots?

POTTER: Typically, yes. It's basically a camera on wheels. I have seen them used in of the past, and they are sent into an area by remote control, and then there is a monitor back in the area where the controlling agents are. And they are watching that monitor. They can see what the robot sees. As I said before, this robot is basically the eyes of the agent. So yes, there is a camera. They have -- it transmits either by cable or by a remote method back to a monitor, and they can see what the robot sees. That enables them not only to see what is there, but to know which way they need to turn the robot, up or down, left or right. Yes, they very definitely do have cameras.

ZAHN: Mark, you were talking about this officer sharing with you the fact that suitcases had been looked at, and you also mention the issue of these manuals, these Islamic manuals. Was there any more information he could give you about those?

POTTER: No, Paula. Trust me, I tried real hard. He just didn't know what they were. That's all he could say. He just said "manuals."

ZAHN: He didn't say "maps"; he said "manuals."

POTTER: No, the word he used was "manuals," and other two words were "Islamic writing." Then he went to explain that he just had no idea for sure what that was. Then the other items he said that they saw were books and laptop computers.

I don't know that they have gone through those as part of the 25 percent that's been searched. They have seen those. So more to come maybe on that.

ZAHN: Once again, let's review for folks just joining us, Mark. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) about these dogs alerting to these vehicles. That means simply -- and we know that no explosive material has been found at this point -- that means simply at some point and time an accelerant may have been in one of these vehicles. It doesn't necessarily mean these vehicles contain any of it now. Right?

POTTER: Absolutely right. The dogs are seen as a first alert to a possibility. The dogs are very good. They are very good. But they are a little bit nonselective in that they alert to everything. And I have seen this in the past: Anybody who has been on the scenes, including yourself, you have seen this where the dogs alert to something, and it turns out later to be a firecracker. It could be that an explosive device was in that car at some point. It could be that powder was in the car. It could be a weapon had been in the car. I know that in plane crash situations, where the dogs alert, later it turns out to be something completely benign. But there have been so many instances where the dog was absolutely right and on point. So when they got that alert, they had to do exactly what they are doing and be very careful.

But it is not a definitive conclusion by any stretch.

ZAHN: Mark, Bill and I have been talking here all morning long about how anybody looking at these pictures might think, whoa, what have they got. They haven't found any explosives so far. Are they overreacting here? I think everybody on the scene that we have talked with has made it very clear they don't know what is at issue here. Lieutenant Bagnardi (ph) of the Florida Highway Department saying, Frankly, we don't even care. We just want to make sure that everybody here that's involved in the investigation goes home healthy tonight.

HEMMER: Where are we now? Let's update our viewers. We are looking at a stretch of highway in southern Florida. Interstate 75, essentially Alligator Alley -- or right near it, just east of Naples on your map here. Here is the story as we understand it. About midnight last night, sometime between midnight and 1:00 a.m. Eastern time, a car approached a toll booth to get onto Alligator Alley essentially and ran the toll. We don't know why. We understand it's a buck. What instigated this we are not clear of. But a short time later, essentially eight miles down the road, that car was pulled over. And then shortly after that, another car pulled up behind. And now we have the situation that we have.

Authorities have responded. At least five agencies right now, Paula, involved on the scene as we look at it now.

ZAHN: What is so interesting about this is that they are now saying they had very specific information on these suspects. They are not sharing much of that information with us now. In fact, the news conference that was just held, basically all Mr. Pacola (ph) of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would confirm is that these guys were detained, they were not charged, that they were somewhat cooperating at the point they were pulled over and that no explosive material had been found. And Mark Potter reporting at this point that maybe 25 percent of what is inside the vehicles has been actually looked at.

HEMMER: Apparently, at this restaurant in Calhoun, Georgia, the folks working there or eating there, whether they are employees or customers, they got a pretty good look at the situation. Both cars, to get the license, tag number and pass along that and the description for the vehicles right down to the button when it comes to putting out that bulletin. That has given everyone pause on this story.

ZAHN: Which I guess should remind us all when the government changes the level of alert that this is what they are talking about. When we say to them, what do you want us to do about it, and they said we don't want to change the way you live your life, we just want you to be more alert. If it is true that this is a legitimate tip, whoever this woman is, we certainly want to talk to her one of these days -- provided some very valuable information to law enforcement officials.

HEMMER: Our folks are working on her. It is quite possible we will have her on the phone in a moment here. She was described as a restaurant worker. It is possible, though, now, just getting some information through my ear, Paula, that she could have been a customer at the time. A Shone's restaurant in Calhoun, Georgia, is where all this began sometime on Wednesday.

ZAHN: In the meantime, folks trying to get to work today, and that part of Florida having a very tough time. Traffic has been diverted around that 20-mile stretch of highway that is currently closed off. A no-fly zone continues to be imposed. The reason for that, I guess, if there are any further detonations, they just wanted to make sure there were no planes were any flying lower than 3,500 feet over that area.

At this point, we are not able to tell you just how serious the situation looks. It certainly does look serious, visually, when you've got five agencies on the ground investigating. Once again, as Bill just told you, about all we can leave you with until we hand this over to next team, is that these agencies are taking this sufficiently seriously enough that hopefully within the next three, four hours of the search of these vehicles, we'll have some more concrete information to provide for you. But they say even if they are overreacting, it doesn't matter. They really don't know what is at stake here.

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