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Thursday, October 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Details about Seattle school found in Iraq

By Sanjay Bhatt
Seattle Times staff reporter

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Staff and students at the Center School in Seattle were told Monday that "old, outdated information" about their school was on a computer disk found in Iraq, officials said yesterday.

A few Seattle School District employees had known about the disk since Oct. 8, when the Seattle Police Department contacted the district but asked it not to divulge the information, said district spokeswoman Patti Spencer-Watkins.

About 300 students are enrolled at the Center School, which has about 14 staff members. The arts-focused high school is located in the Center House at Seattle Center.

The disk, which included such things as school names, floor layouts and building security diagrams, made national news Oct. 7. At that time, it was said to contain information about schools in six states — California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey and Oregon.

With memories still fresh of the terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, Russia, disclosure of the disk raised both fears and controversy. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Education urged schools to heighten security.

On Oct. 8, however, federal officials were insisting there was no terrorist connection to the disk. The FBI said it had contacted local officials out of an abundance of caution.

The unidentified Iraqi man who made the disk, The Associated Press reported, was doing research and had no connection to al-Qaida or Iraqi insurgents attacking U.S. soldiers. The man's links to the Baath Party weren't considered unusual, given that most government officials and community leaders in Saddam Hussein's Iraq had to pledge allegiance to the party.

Although initial news reports stated that the disk had information on schools in six states, and Washington wasn't one of them, Special Agent Robbie Burroughs, spokeswoman for the FBI Seattle office, yesterday said the Center School was "part of the same thing."

While the individual's possession of the information is "obviously suspicious," there is no evidence of a direct threat, Burroughs said.

She couldn't say why Washington wasn't included in the earlier news reports.
 
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On Monday, "we were alerted there was a possibility that the information [about Center School] might get into the public domain," Spencer-Watkins said. The district agreed with the Police Department to share the news with the school community, she said. "We chose to do that because we wanted them to hear it directly from us."

On Tuesday, the school district's security manager briefed Center School's staff during lunch, Spencer-Watkins said. Later that day, teachers read a letter about the disk to students and gave them copies, and the district mailed letters to families.

"We do not want to create unnecessary concern," the letter said. "However, we are advising you about this information at this time, because we want to ensure that we notify you directly before the information becomes public. The Seattle Police Department concurs with our decision."

Seattle police spokesman Sean Whitcomb said the disk was "part of a research project on education." While the fact that the disk included school names was declassified, the school names themselves remain classified, Whitcomb said. Seattle police disclosed that material about Center School was on the disk, he said, only because they learned from district officials that it had become public knowledge.

That the original alert was even issued has become controversial just weeks before the presidential election. On Oct. 8, the Washington Post reported that "some security and foreign-policy experts said the alert created fear unnecessarily because no specific threat was cited, and they questioned whether the letter was a calculated pre-election move."

Last week, a Cornell University sociologist released a study that showed how President Bush's approval ratings have jumped every time the federal government has issued a terrorism warning.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Staff reporter Mike Carter contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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