The FBI has alerted hospitals in four major U.S. cities -- Chicago, Houston, San Francisco and Washington -- that they could be targeted for upcoming terrorist attacks, but few hospitals or communities viewed the threat as serious enough to warrant immediate new security measures.
The White House quickly downplayed the severity of the threat, saying it had "very low credibility."
Many hospitals already have tightened security significantly since the terrorist attacks of September 2001. "Since 9-11 we have spent big dollars to increase personnel and security coverage," said Beth Sartori, a spokeswoman for nine-hospital Memorial Hermann Healthcare System, Houston. "We have already taken the appropriate steps and have adequate measures in place."
The threatened attacks would take place in mid-December "in reaction to continued arrests of Pakistani nationals by Pakistani authorities," according to an FBI notice to California hospitals. The FBI notice said, "The threat information cannot be substantiated. The veracity of the source is unknown."
"If we get more information that is more substantial ... probably every hospital in San Francisco will boost security," said Linda Gillespie, a spokeswoman for 359-bed Saint Francis Memorial Hospital, San Francisco.
Hospital officials participating in a conference call held today by the District of Columbia Hospital Association did not reach consensus on specific actions to take but discussed how various potential threats might be handled, association President Robert Malson said. As front-line responders to any terrorist event, hospitals' ability to weather an attack on their own facilities "is not a major quantum leap," Malson said.
It was unclear if the FBI sent identical alerts to each city. The one received by Houston hospitals advised facilities to "be diligent in reporting suspicious activity to law enforcement."
Members of the Texas Medical Center, which includes 13 hospitals and some of the nation's best-known research institutions, are "taking appropriate measures" in response to the new threat, a spokesman said, but he declined to elaborate.