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Last Updated

22 Apr 2003

Source: New York Times, April 22, 2003

Sniffing New York's Air Ducts for Signs of Terror


Since the war began in Iraq, and even before, the response to the threat of terrorism in New York City has been jarringly visible: heavily armed police officers in the subways, truck checkpoints on bridges, Black Hawk helicopters in the skies.

But there is another layer of protection, on the rooftops and down deep in the basements of some of the city's most notable buildings. Here the threat is nearly invisible, as are the soldiers defending against it, but the danger is still real for those working unawares in their offices.

For a little more than a month, a team of specially trained National Guard soldiers has been testing for biological agents in hotels, tourist sites, government buildings including City Hall office buildings like the World Financial Center and other places on a list of possible targets, primarily in Midtown and Lower Manhattan. They have made repeated, almost daily visits to as many as 30 sites.

"Our job is to give the local authorities quick, preliminary information so they can save lives," said Maj. Kaarlo J. Hietala, a soft-spoken career soldier originally from upstate New York who is the National Guard unit's commander. "We help provide the preliminary information they need to make decisions about whether to restrict access or quarantine an area, and how to handle patients."

The 22-member unit is based in Scotia, N.Y., and is one of 32 Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams around the country, although it is the only one now testing for unconventional weapons in urban areas. The Pentagon began forming the teams in 1998 to help assess the scope and severity of a possible terrorist attack by testing for unconventional weapons and then advising civilian agencies on how best to deal with them.

The list of potential targets was compiled by the Police Department, which relied on a combination of intelligence and common sense.

On one recent morning, as thousands of people settled into their offices at the World Financial Center, Major Hietala and Master Sgt. Michael Hartzel, both wearing nondescript blue uniforms, were guided through a warren of passageways in the subbasement. There, in a cinder-block fan room painted pale blue, they began their task.

Major Hietala pulled on latex gloves and climbed through a small access panel in the financial center's subbasement. He took a wooden-stemmed cotton swab from a kit in a black knapsack and drew it across a filter that cleans the air pumped into a garage beneath the building.

He handed the swab to Sergeant Hartzel, a chemical and biological weapons specialist, who sealed it inside a pinky-finger-size bottle, which he then put in a larger specimen bottle and then in a heavy zippered plastic bag. The day before, soldiers from the unit checked the ventilation system that filters the air that office workers breathe in the tower above, the major said.

The swabs were tested for a wide range of biological agents, including smallpox and anthrax, he said. As they have each day since the team arrived in New York City on March 19, the results came back negative.

In addition to checking for biological agents, the soldiers, working with the Police Department, have also been monitoring for chemical agents and radiological contamination, supplementing open air testing done in several areas by the City Health Department and, under a new nationwide program, by the federal Homeland Security Department.

The soldiers use sensitive equipment and a mobile laboratory that allows them to do a preliminary analysis, which can be forwarded to more sophisticated city, state or federal labs. They carry small radiation detectors, like those used by some police officers and firefighters, chemical agent detectors and other detection and testing gear.

Their work underscores the growing concerns among local and federal authorities about a terrorist attack using such unconventional weapons, concerns that heightened when United States and British forces invaded Iraq.

Al Qaeda, according to intelligence agencies and testimony in several federal terrorism trials, has long sought chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, including a so-called dirty bomb a conventional explosive jacketed in radioactive material that would send out a plume over a limited area.

While the $143 million nationwide civil support team program for biological, chemical and radiation weapons stumbled in its early days, with criticism over a ballooning budget that might have been better spent on training and equipping local agencies, the New York team has earned praise from some local officials. Gov. George E. Pataki ordered the unit to New York City when the war began. It continues to work, even while hostilities appear to be cooling overseas.

The New York team's annual budget is about $600,000, for personnel, equipment and training, according to officials. Among their tools are a computer modeling program that, using real-time weather information, can roughly predict the course and effects of a release of biological, chemical or radiological agents, Major Hietala said.

The program tracks the course of a plume, delineated as a scarlet cloud across an aerial map of the city, roughly defining the affected area and allowing the soldiers to set up what is known as an exclusion zone. Using census data, the program can also make casualty estimates, Major Hietala said, but he noted the figures for some areas can be unreliable because they are based on nighttime population, which could be a fraction of the daytime figures.

They have gone about their tasks in recent weeks with little fanfare, in large measure because officials view the testing as a precaution, and because Major Hietala says he views the unit's role as supporting the work done by local authorities.

So the soldiers have abandoned their camouflage battle dress for unremarkable blue uniforms actually low-level chemical protection suits and drive mostly in unmarked vehicles, traveling with the New York Police Department officers with whom they work.

Made up of full-time National Guard soldiers who are each trained in a particular specialty, the unit also has a sophisticated communications truck that can send encrypted data to laboratories like the one at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta over a secure satellite link. (After the unit came to New York City the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, senior F.B.I. officials, who lost the use of their communications center in Lower Manhattan, used the team's secure link to communicate with F.B.I officials in Washington.)

And the support team's assistance, according to Major Hietala and several other officials, has not been limited to the Police Department.

Major Hietala has met with officials from several other city agencies, including the office of the chief medical examiner, which has an unusual problem surrounding the possible use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

"They have concerns," the major said. "What if something bad did happen and how would that affect remains? They talked to us about what they've been working on, how do they certify people as clean to release them to their families."