Media blows up truck incident

Agents from the Border Patrol and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms visited Oak Harbor last week to investigate a rental truck suspected of being linked to terrorists. But in doing so, they set off what appears to be a baseless media frenzy over the incident.

In the end, nothing suspicious was found in the truck, but two men are being sent back to Israel.

Oak Harbor Police Capt. Rick Wallace said an officer became suspicious after stopping a Budget Rental truck on May 7 for a traffic violation and discovering the two Middle Eastern occupants didn't have proper identification.

Wallace said one of the two men had an expired visa and the other man didn't have any papers. Both of the men are Israeli citizens.

The police, Wallace said, took the men into custody, parked the truck in a parking lot at the Whidbey News-Times and contacted the Border Patrol, FBI, Navy security and Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Ron Henley, the chief patrol agent with the Border Patrol in Blaine, said federal officials became more concerned when a Navy security officer's explosive-sniffing dog "showed interest" in the driver's side of the truck. So ATF agents came to Oak Harbor and searched the van. They discovered that the truck was empty.

Henley said the truck was rented in California and the men apparently dropped off some furniture somewhere before arriving in Oak Harbor.

In the days following the truck seizure, the Oak Harbor Police Department and the Seattle ATF office have been inundated with inquiries following a FOX News report about the incident. An agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says that FOX News created "hysteria" in reporting misleading information about the case.

"There was nothing explosive," said Scott McKinna, supervisor for the AFT's arson and explosives group. "We have not ID'ed people as terrorists."

In addition, McKinna said FOX was inaccurate in reporting that "the BATF and FBI had tested the truck and found traces of explosives on the steering wheel and gear shift."

McKinna said that Navy security may have done a preliminary swab test that tested positive for the presence of nitrates, but more complete tests showed nothing suspiciously explosive.

In a May 14 Seattle Post-Intelligencer story about the case, an unnamed law enforcement official is paraphrased as saying the traces of explosives may have been nothing more than residue left behind from a cigarette lighter.

The two Israeli men are not facing any terrorism-related charges and they are not being investigated as possible terrorists. In fact, McKinna said, the FBI is investigating them for possible "fraud involving the movement of household goods." Garrison Courtney, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said the men have been charged with immigration violations, including overstaying a visa and working without documentation.

They are being held at the Seattle INS detention center pending an immigration trial.

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