By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The FBI demanded Las Vegas hotels turn over their guest lists leading up to New Year's Eve to check against a U.S. master list of suspected terrorists, a law enforcement official said on Sunday.
The demand for "patron information" went to all major hotels in the Nevada casino and entertainment city, said the official who declined to be named.
Las Vegas was one of six or seven cities mentioned in intelligence reports as potential targets for a terrorist attack during the holiday period, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn said on New Year's Eve.
A second U.S. government official said to his knowledge only one hotel had balked at providing its bookings list. Newsweek, the first to report the FBI demand, said one big hotel had refused and was "slapped with a subpoena."
The unspecified hotel apparently wanted some "cover" against any privacy-related guest complaints, the official told Reuters. The FBI sent a letter linking the demand to a national security investigation or hinting at a "friendly" subpoena to meet the hotel's concerns, he added.
The Justice Department, the FBI's parent agency, declined comment on any specific effort to thwart possible plots since the Dec. 21 raising of the U.S. warning level to Code Orange, its second highest level.
Among other worries, U.S. officials have said they fear terrorists may be trying to outdo the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacked airliner attacks that killed about 3,000 people in the United States.
Las Vegas, along with New York City's Times Square, features one of the biggest New Year's Eve block parties with revelers thronging its garish, 3-mile long, hotel and casino "strip."
The Federal Aviation Administration barred pilots from flying over the New Year's Eve festivities in Las Vegas and New York as a precautionary measure.
Asked about the Las Vegas hotel records, Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman, said: "Without comment on any specific case or instance, we will use every legal tool we have to protect the American people from terrorist attacks."
A representative of the American Civil Liberties Union said the demand for guest records, without any individual suspicion, infringed on the privacy of as many as 300,000 people "whose leisure activities are no one's business but their own."
The action also showed the FBI's expanded, post-Sept. 11 power to obtain personal records without judicial review or suspicion about an individual "may well be used to monitor ordinary Americans," said Timothy Edgar, the ACLU's legislative counsel.
In a sign of unabated U.S. concern, the head of a House of Representatives' committee with access to intelligence information said on Sunday al Qaeda remained bent on using hijacked airliners as weapons.
"There is no question that al Qaeda still wants to use airplanes as weapons," Rep. Christopher Cox, the California Republican who chairs the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, said on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."
"There's no question that there's planning going on and there's no question that the threats, as they've been assessed, are real," he added.