Officials dismiss an anonymous tip, saying it could have been a hoax.
BOSTON -- As local media maelstroms go, it had all the makings of a perfect storm.
An anonymous tip about a dirty bomb threat sent this city into a tizzy Wednesday evening, with nerves already frayed by a rush-hour snowstorm and speculation that an attack might be timed to coincide with the eve of the presidential inauguration in Washington.
But in a briefing Thursday afternoon, state officials said that while they had gathered new information about the four Chinese and two Iraqi nationals sought for questioning, nothing the investigation had uncovered had increased their alarm or corroborated the initial tip.
It is still not known, they said, whether the individuals had even entered the country.
"There are some who would say that the information has a degree of unreliability to it," said Gov. Mitt Romney, R -- who dashed home from inaugural festivities after news reports of the threat broke -- in response to a reporter's question.
"Could this be a hoax? Why, of course," he later added.
If so, some Bostonians and visitors wondered Thursday, had the frenzied response fueled an unnecessary panic that officials said they were trying to avoid?
"It just seems like sensationalism and fear-mongering. A real overreaction," said Erin Baldwin, 34, a graphic artist from San Francisco who arrived Thursday for a long weekend getaway with her husband. "It is not going to change our plans at all."
Others said they were glad that precautions were taken. "Its kind of comforting that they took this thing seriously, even if it turns out to be nothing," said Eric Ronci, 23, a senior at Boston's Suffolk University.
Government officials in Washington said Thursday that at this point they largely discount the notion that Boston was to be attacked, but haven't completely ruled it out. Some officials believe the tip was provided about one human smuggling ring by a rival gang.
The tip traveled a circuitous route from the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego to its counterpart in Boston, which then shared it with local officials. The FBI notified two separate offices within the Homeland Security Department, but not the headquarters, which led to confusion when local officials, reporters and members of the public began querying federal agencies, officials said.
On Wednesday, Homeland Security intelligence chief Patrick Hughes made several phone calls to state homeland security directors around the nation to explain the government's skepticism about the reported threat.
"This is just like thousands of other tips we receive all the time," one FBI official in Washington said. "We have to run it out and see if there's anything to it."
Call for calm
As news of the threat broke Wednesday afternoon, politicians had called for calm, while scrambling to show they were taking the threat seriously. Media reports described state officials gathering in a suburban bunker to plot strategy before an evening briefing from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.
Romney, who has been stung here recently by newspaper reports of his broader political ambitions and frequent forays outside the state, said he returned to Boston to reassure residents that he considered the city safe. New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, D, also returned to his state Wednesday.
The office of U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan distributed the names and photographs of two Chinese men and two women that were immediately splashed across television screens Wednesday night, even as federal officials were downplaying the validity of the tip. None of the named suspects appears on a terrorist or drug enforcement watch list, Sullivan said.
By that point, popular and acerbic conservative radio hosts Howie Carr and Jay Severin were devoting the entirety of their dueling drive-time call-in shows to the unfolding events.