Almost from the moment federal investigators picked up the shocking report that a team of Iraqi terrorists and Chinese scientists was headed for Boston with a radioactive "dirty" bomb, they figured it was probably a dud.
None of it made sense. The tip had come from a caller who claimed to have smuggled the group across the border from Mexico -- but why would terrorists share their plans with a smuggler? What was this "nuclear oxide" he was talking about? Why would Chinese scientists be involved?
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), at microphone, who cut short inauguration plans because of a terrorist threat, discusses it at a briefing in Boston.
(Chitose Suzuki -- AP)
In short, it sounded no more plausible than the hundreds of terrorism tips that the FBI and local law enforcement officials are obliged to investigate every month, the vast majority of which never pan out.
Yet in one key way, this tip was different. Most are uselessly vague -- reports of an unidentified weird guy hanging around a port or a military base, for example -- or overly general, outlining broad potential threats. This one, though, came with names, targets, means of destruction -- even photographs.
It now seems that it was that rare level of detail -- granting investigators a speedy way to focus their search but also imbuing a far-fetched scenario with an aura of credibility -- that caused the routine investigation of the tip to snowball into a major public frenzy in Boston last month. The mayor held televised news conferences. The governor abruptly left the presidential inauguration festivities in Washington. And the local media bombarded the airwaves and filled their front pages with word of the alleged terrorist threat.
The furor turned out to be over nothing. Within a few days, the tipster allegedly confessed that it was all a hoax.
"This got ramped up because of the specificity," said Gail Marcinkiewicz, spokeswoman for the FBI in Boston. "Even though everyone who spoke about it was trying to be reassuring, it just got out of control."
The scare began on the night of Jan. 17 with an anonymous call to a state highway patrol station in Imperial, Calif., about five miles north of the border. The man informed police that the four Chinese chemists and two Iraqis were awaiting a shipment of nuclear material through a tunnel under the border; they then planned to make their way to Boston via New York.
At the FBI's field office in San Diego, which quickly received the tip, special agent in charge Dan Dzwilewski said they had no choice but to investigate despite immediate doubts.
"The American people are an important first line of defense against terror," he said. "We take every tip we get very seriously and we respond to it."
The tipster failed to show up for a meeting with federal agents but delivered a package by tossing it over a border fence to a prearranged drop site. Inside were several documents, including three Chinese visas and a Chinese identification card. In all, the documents provided the names of 14 people, as well as photographs of four of them -- a level of detail uncommon to such blind tips.
"That certainly caught our attention," said another FBI official, who agreed to discuss the incident on the condition of anonymity.
The tip was forwarded to FBI headquarters in Washington and to its field office in Boston. Headquarters' counterterrorism experts immediately viewed the tip as dubious, this official said, but it was passed on to Boston "out of an abundance of caution."
The FBI had no intention of publicizing the information unless it could be corroborated, the official said. Somehow, though, the word leaked out. By noon on Jan. 19 -- barely 36 hours after the tip was first received -- the FBI's Boston office started getting calls from reporters.