06/28/2002 12:00AM

Attack warning ignored by tourists


Two weeks ago a Las Vegas resident reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that he had overheard a cell phone conversion that terrorists were planning an attack in Las Vegas for this Fourth of July weekend.

Five days later, Michael Hamdan, a Lebanese-born naturalized U.S. citizen, took a lie-detector test and failed. This effectively ended a weeklong FBI investigation of the claim.

The national media was quick to report the sensational claim after Hamdan personally contacted outlets such as local Las Vegas television stations, the Associated Press, and CNN. What was not reported as vigilantly was the FBI determination that the threat was not credible.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman conducted numerous media interviews last week to counter the false claim and assure tourists that the city remains safe. The mayor, who "bleeds" Las Vegas in his love for the city, also wears his emotions on his sleeve. In separate interviews, he called Hamdan a "liar," said that he wanted to put his hands around Hamdan's neck and squeeze, and in a reference to his previous career as a criminal defense lawyer representing organized crime figures said Hamdan would have been "whacked."

Hamdan claimed that he overheard the cell phone conversation, in Arabic, while trying to call his wife. He also claimed he failed the FBI lie-detector test because he hadn't eaten for 72 hours or slept for 48 hours because he was doing media interviews around the clock.

After Hamdan appeared on local television, many of his neighbors called the FBI to give warning.

"If you've had dealings with this guy like we have, you'd know he has absolutely no credibility," said Dr. Curt Samlaska, president of the homeowners association in Henderson where Hamdan lives, to The Las Vegas Review-Journal. "We were all blown away that his story went like wildfire nationally, considering this guy's reputation."

The public relations damage control appears to be working. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority expects more than 260,000 visitors this weekend. The main reason for a possible increase from 251,000 last year is that the Fourth of July falls on a Thursday, thus leading to a four-day weekend.

A survey of some major Strip hotels reports very few cancellations. A lot of discounting is being offered and tourists are responding.

Another interesting tourism note is the change in the type of tourist since Sept. 11. McCarran International Airport reported a decline of 8 percent in passenger count this year. Conversely, auto traffic to Las Vegas is up 12 percent, showing that regional marketing is succeeding.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Show