A May 19 article incorrectly said that U.S. Secret Service agents protecting President Bush during a May 10 speech at Freedom Square in Tbilisi, Georgia, had more than 100 Persian rugs hung to obscure the view of the speaker's platform from nearby homes and woods. That precaution was taken at a different location Bush had visited the night before the speech.
FBI: Grenade Was a Threat to Bush
Thursday, May 19, 2005
A live hand grenade tossed into a crowd in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi last week posed "a threat to the health and welfare" of President Bush and landed close enough that he could have been hit with explosive fragments if it had detonated, the FBI and explosives experts said yesterday.
The FBI's conclusion that the device was a live grenade contradicts earlier statements by Georgian and U.S. officials. They had characterized it as a training or engineering device that did not pose a threat to the president during a May 10 speech in Tbilisi's Freedom Square.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday that the U.S. Secret Service might review its security procedures in the wake of the incident. News footage from the event shows that some in the crowd, estimated at 150,000 to 250,000, were able to circumvent metal detectors. Journalists reported that authorities could not adequately contain the audience, which waited hours to hear Bush and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
"The Secret Service is always looking at ways to make sure they're doing everything they can to protect the president of the United States," McClellan said, adding that Bush continues to have "full trust in the Secret Service and appreciates the job that they do."
The FBI's legal attache in Georgia, Bryan Paarmann, said in a statement issued in Tbilisi that the grenade "appears to be a live device that simply failed to function" -- apparently because it was wrapped in a "dark Tartan-colored cloth handkerchief" that slowed the movement of the triggering lever, preventing detonation.
"We consider this act to be a threat against the health and welfare of both the President of the United States and the President of Georgia as well as the multitude of Georgian people that had turned out at this event," Paarmann said.
U.S. and Georgian officials have identified the device as a Soviet-era RGD-5 hand grenade, which contains just under four ounces of TNT, according to specifications from Soviet weapons manuals. Although the RGD-5's effective range is about 65 feet, some fragments can travel 100 feet or more, according to the specifications.
Military weapons are widespread among Georgian citizens after a decade of upheaval that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Georgia has waged two wars with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, conflicts that remain unresolved.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense policy think tank, said the incident raises serious questions about the Secret Service's performance.
"Why didn't they have effective perimeter control? That is the question," Pike said. "The system did work in the sense that the munition did not get within its lethal radius. But when you do the arithmetic, it was just barely. It's not giving yourself much margin."
The grenade was thrown as Bush and Saakashvili addressed a huge and enthusiastic crowd in Tbilisi. Their appearance touched off a chaotic scene in the Georgian capital as tens of thousands of people crowded into the city's main square, apparently overwhelming some of the Secret Service's security procedures.
Bush spoke from a raised, red-carpeted platform that looked out over the plaza. It was surrounded on two sides and in part of the front by thick bulletproof glass. But there was no bulletproof glass directly in front of the lectern.
Paarmann said the grenade "was tossed in the general direction of the main stage and landed within 100 feet" of the lectern. That would place the explosive within the outer margins of its maximum fragment range. Authorities have not specified more precisely where the device was found or how close it was to Bush.
A Secret Service spokeswoman said last week that the grenade hit someone in the crowd and fell to the ground before it was recovered by a Georgian security official. Yesterday, an agency spokesman declined to comment.
Law enforcement sources and security experts said that, based on their knowledge of the evidence so far, Bush was probably not within the grenade's "kill range" but that shrapnel from the device could have reached him while he stood at the lectern. Because the grenade was lobbed into the crowd, people standing between the device and the stage might have absorbed much of the impact if it had detonated, sources said.
Law enforcement officials said they have not ruled out the possibility that the grenade was intended for Saakashvili, a pro-Western leader who came to power in last year's "Rose Revolution" but is battling separatist elements in the former Soviet republic.
McClellan said Bush was informed about the new findings Tuesday night and was briefed by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III at a regular intelligence meeting yesterday morning.
"The FBI is working very closely with Georgian authorities to make sure that this is fully investigated," McClellan said. "We want to see the results of that investigation once it is completed."
Authorities are offering a cash reward of about $11,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case and are urging audience members with photographs or video footage of the event to come forward, Paarmann said.
Before the event, Secret Service advance staff members were concerned that small homes and woods not far behind the site could provide cover to a would-be assassin. But they solved the potential problem by creating a two-to-three-story-high skeleton of pipes that were draped with more than 100 Persian rugs, according to one pool report filed by journalists who accompanied Bush on the trip.
Bush was already aboard Air Force One and jetting back to the United States when Georgian authorities reported finding the grenade hours after the speech. Later, they said the grenade appeared to be a harmless training device, prompting U.S. officials initially to play down the incident.
"The Secret Service didn't consider him to be [in danger] at that time," McClellan said yesterday. "We've learned more since that time."
U.S. and Georgian explosives experts will continue to examine the grenade under laboratory conditions, Paarmann said. FBI investigators in Georgia and the United States are poring over witness accounts, photographs and videotape in an effort to identify a culprit, other officials said.
Staff writer Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.