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U.S. authorities warned to stay vigilant

Monday - 8/20/2012, 4:48am  ET

J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - As the political conventions and Labor Day approach, keep your eyes open. That's the message the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are sending to law enforcement and first responders as a part of DHS' Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative.

Large public gatherings of people around holidays and at National Special Security Events are of particular concern. NSSEs are national or international occasions judged by the DHS to be potential targets for terrorism or other criminal activity.

Not only does the warning address big public events, it also mentions suspicious behaviors and break-ins that have occurred across the country.

Among the examples reported is a man, in an unidentified city, who was wearing black, a headlamp and carrying tools. He was caught on video surveillance trying to break into a manhole. The manhole is used by water, sewer and telephone company personnel.

Other cases included people conducting surveillance on movie theaters and a man caught on video on a mobile phone getting instructions on how to crack the code to a fire-station door. According to the bulletin, he got in and stole valuable equipment.

"They may seem like minor issues, but as transnational terror groups use the Internet to promote terror and train operatives, it's precisely these kinds of incidents that can wreak havoc at a moment notice," says a federal law enforcement source, who requested anonymity.

The massacre at a Colorado theater in July was not connected to a transnational terror group. But the event - - which occurred two months after DHS and the FBI warned of the possibility of attacks on movie theaters -- is considered by federal authorities to be an act of domestic terrrorism by a lone shooter. The theater in Aurora lacked security.

Less common, but more dangerous critical infrastructure surveillance has been noted, including one instance where the fence around a large hydroelectric dam was cut twice in a month. Investigators say the opening at the base of the powerhouse was just big enough for a person to squeeze through.

Other events include helicopter flyovers around denied areas and reports of suspicious surveillance in and around hotel and transit areas, both of which are soft targets that terrorists have been found to prefer.

Created in 2009, the NSI is designed as a partnership among federal, state, local, tribal and territorial law enforcement to allow for the gathering, documenting, processing, analyzing and sharing of information that is potentially related to terrorism.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)