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22 Aug 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, February 6, 2002.

A Security Net of Sawhorses and Soldiers

Terrorism: An improvised patchwork of protection has arisen across the country, a defense against what's likely.

By PETER H. KING and GREG KRIKORIAN, Times Staff Writers

On the floor of Montana's Bitterroot Valley, so far, far away from lower Manhattan, Jane Ellis finds herself on the front lines of a war she never contemplated, trying to prepare for attacks she can barely imagine.

Ellis directs the county Office of Emergency Management in Missoula. On a fine, crisp day, she showed a visitor around her piece of the American homeland, pointing out possible terrorist targets: the shopping mall and public waterworks, government buildings and chemical storehouses.

While not wanting to seem a "Chicken Little," Ellis said it only made sense to revisit old assumptions, to look at familiar landmarks with new eyes and to "do some brainstorming: What if?" "The realm of possibilities," Ellis said, "has increased infinitely since Sept. 11."

In the months since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in big cities and in small towns, on bridges and at border crossings, Americans have been girding for assault from the shadows, recalculating "the realm of possibilities" in a strange new war.

Much of the response has been patchwork, improvised--from the uniformed officer stationed at meetings of the Cullman, Ala., City Council, to the sawhorse barricades placed around public buildings in downtown Missoula.

In a sense, the effort to shore up the home front against terrorism is an exercise in seeking balance: between added security and reduced openness and convenience; between the likelihood a threat might materialize and the cost of eliminating it.

President Bush has left no doubt that security will be a preoccupation of government. In his State of the Union address last week, and in the proposed budget he sent to Congress on Monday, Bush called for nearly doubling homeland defense spending, to $38 billion, and enlisting tens of thousands of volunteers to help police, fire and public health departments.

"There is a new world order, a new way of thinking," said Constance Perett, Los Angeles County's emergency management administrator. "I don't think there is anyone who says, 'Well, that isn't likely to occur.' I mean, how many people thought terrorists could commandeer jetliners and crash them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon? We know all it takes is someone to dream it up and someone to execute it."

In a nondescript county building five miles east of downtown Los Angeles, anti-terrorism strategists huddle each day for "mind-mapping" sessions. The minds they try to map are those of terrorists.

The Early Terrorism Warning Group, started five years ago, went on full-time footing after Sept. 11. It often is cited by terrorism experts as a model for the nation.

At the group's command center, representatives of assorted government agencies troll the world by computer, sifting the Web sites of foreign newspapers, police departments, extremists--any forum that might yield tips about impending attacks or trends in terrorists' methods or intentions.

As they gather information, task force members discuss what it means for Southern California. What might tensions between Pakistan and India trigger in the L.A. Basin? Are the region's airports alert to the possibility of shoe bombs?

"Political violence," Los Angeles County sheriff's Sgt. John P. Sullivan said, "is designed to cause a discernible political effect: You knock down the World Trade Center because you want to send a signal that great societal change is coming. It is not just to kill people. In terrorism, violence is instrumental or symbolic. So what you are doing is fighting a battle of the minds."

War Has Always Been 'Over There,' Not Here

Buffered on the east and west by oceans, bordered on the north and south by friendly neighbors, the United States had long seemed an island on the world map. Wars were fought "over there," and civil defense was the stuff of fussy old men and back-country paranoids.

There was an aggressive effort during World War II to prepare the nation for bombing attacks and even an invasion--with block captains and blackouts and the like--but the system never was put to the test. When Hollywood got around to depicting the effort on film, with a 1943 offering called "Air Raid Wardens," it chose for its leading men Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the slapstick comedians.

The nuclear threat did dent the psychic armor, producing the duck-and-cover drills and bomb shelters of the late 1950s. These disappeared as the dueling superpowers built vast nuclear stockpiles, making survivability a moot point.

In the days before Sept. 11, the United States was a nation with its guard down. The 4,000-mile border with Canada was guarded by just 330 Border Patrol agents, despite intelligence that terrorists had established cells in Canada.

Fighter jets were on alert at seven air defense sites, down from the 100 bases across the continent that had kept planes ready to scramble during the Cold War. The top general of the California National Guard was preoccupied, not with patrolling the Golden Gate Bridge--that would come later -- but with ensuring there was money enough in a tight budget for uniforms.

The phrase "homeland security" was familiar only to a relative few academicians and public policy types who had begun to warn persistently about the threat of large-scale terrorist attacks--only to be just as persistently ignored.

Since the attacks, these same experts have found themselves much in demand. On a Friday in early October, Coast Guard Cmdr. Stephen Flynn, an expert on security holes in transportation systems, was seated with a panel of witnesses in a Senate hearing room on Capitol Hill.

Under discussion was how the new Cabinet-level White House Office of Homeland Security might be structured. There was back-and-forth about veto power, budget authority, bureaucratic shapes -- "about moving around the boxes," as one senator phrased it.

Should Thomas J. Ridge, the homeland security director, be a coordinator or a "czar"? Would he have real power or, as former U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey warned, would he be "relegated to running the speakers bureau on counter-terrorism?" a quip that produced knowing chuckles all around.

Flynn was the next-to-last witness. In the Coast Guard, he had chased drug smugglers, tended buoys, the works. For the last two years, while retaining his service rank, Flynn had directed a homeland security study for the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank.

In this latest capacity, he had concentrated on transportation systems -- exploring ports, border crossings, railways, airports. "The question I've been asking," he told three senators still in the room, "is how do we filter the bad from the good, the dangerous from the benign? And the answer is, we don't."

Leaning forward, hunched over the witness table, his reddening neck flexed into a starched, white shirt collar, this 41-year-old son of a Coast Guard lifer barked out his testimony in a thick New England accent.

Flynn tossed out numbers. Thousands upon thousands of container boxes move by rail and truck across the country each day, he said, "and we don't have a clue what's in them." Compared to what passes for security at ports and border crossings, he said, commercial aviation could be seen as "Ft. Knox."

He painted scenarios. He described how an attack in the Port of Los Angeles by a single, explosives-laden motorboat, if carried out at the right time and place, could rupture the oil infrastructure in a manner that would "effectively shut down the Southern California economy in three to four days."

He told how a container could make its way by ship from Karachi, Pakistan, to Long Beach and then move across the country by rail or truck without undergoing even the most cursory inspection. And don't worry about giving terrorists ideas: "The bad guys know all this. What worries me is that the good guys don't."

Flynn cited the multitude of security agencies at work in ports and along the border. He described how their missions sometimes overlap and sometimes leave gaps, and how incompatible radio equipment often prevents communication between the gatekeeper agencies--which in the last year alone waved 489 million people, 127 million cars and 211,000 boats into the United States.

"Houston," he said, "we have a problem."

No longer could this nation view defense as something that ran "from the water's edge out." Now it must operate from the "'water's edge in."

There was silence when Flynn finished. In that quiet pause it seemed as if everyone in the room was lingering over the same thought: Maybe this is about more than moving around the boxes.

Spasm of Security May Be Fleeting

While Sept. 11 certainly jolted awake a nation of Rip Van Winkles, it is not at all certain whether the current impulse to fortify, to throw up bulwarks and stuff high-rise lobbies with security guards in sharp blue blazers, will prove lasting.

In the past, the U.S. has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for rolling over and going back to sleep, no matter how terrible the nightmare. In the last decade alone, it has absorbed and shrugged off several big terrorist blows--the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the Oklahoma City federal building bombing in 1995 and attacks on two embassies in Africa in 1998.

Maj. Gen. Paul Monroe, head of California's National Guard, tells of traveling to Washington with his wife after Sept. 11. They were struck by the heightened security, the checkpoints, the concrete "Jersey barriers" blocking streets around the Capitol.

"My wife asked me, how long is this going to last?" Monroe recalled. "I told her, 'Until you get upset about it.' ... That's the way our society is. As soon as the threat is gone, we don't want it in our face anymore."

An alternate view is that terrorists will not allow the nation to return to its slumbers. According to this line of thought, war as conflict between nation-states, with soldiers in uniforms and rules of engagement to protect civilians, is giving way to "asymmetric warfare," more commonly known as terrorism.

This was the intellectual backdrop for a series of reports over the last couple of years by the U.S. Commission on National Security. Chaired by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren B. Rudman, the commission completed its work early in 2001. Its findings, which initially drew little public notice, now leap off the page:

"For many years to come, Americans will become increasingly less secure, and much less secure than they now believe themselves to be. That is because many of the threats emerging in our future will differ significantly from those of the past, not only in their physical but also in their psychological effects."

In an interview, Hart said he still believes terrorism can be defeated: "We will beat it by being smarter than the terrorists. That does not mean sitting down writing science fiction all day. It means thinking ahead and questioning assumptions.

"The reason we didn't think about commercial airliners as guided missiles was that we thought we had solved the hijacking problem. The profiles were wrong. What we assumed about the nature of hijacking was wrong. We weren't smart enough. We weren't thinking as these people were thinking."

In Missoula, a place seemingly far removed from the tangle of geopolitics and dire millennial prophecies, Ellis said she had tried her hand at "thinking like a terrorist" and found it more than a little difficult.

"It's really hard to think like they think," said Ellis, a self-described "proud redneck," with teased hair and a teasing sense of humor. "That is so contrary to our basic value system. ... It doesn't compute for us."

Nonetheless, she dutifully has scraped together a list of possible terrorist targets--the reservoir, chemical storehouses and the like--and reviewed the county's emergency rescue and evacuation plans. In Ellis' mind, though, it is not her role to outwit Osama bin Laden. Rather, she must ensure the county is ready for whatever threats develop--and terrorism does not necessarily top the list.

"We can't possibly deal with all that is possible," she said. "We must deal with what is most likely."

Dealing with terrorism "stuff," she said, "is taking time away from working on problems we know we are going to face. I should be going through solicitations for new hardware to replace the county's emergency communications system.

"Now, I'm truly concerned about whether we are going to be able to get that hardware bought in time to get it installed on the mountaintops before winter. That's a real scenario we will face."

Ellis stopped downtown to point out the new sawhorse barriers in parking spaces around a government building. "As if a truck couldn't barrel through that," she said, shaking her head. And then she was off to meet the fire chief, who had a story to tell about Missoula's first anthrax scare, a false alarm. Something to do with a grandmother and a mail-order doll.

Targets Protected, Targets Exposed

In Chicago, high-rise building maps have been placed on CD-ROMs for quick reference in emergencies; plans have been laid to stockpile heavy fire equipment throughout the Sears Tower, which will eliminate the need to haul it up several flights of stairs in a crisis.

In Washington, garbage cans and recycling bins have been removed from subway stations -- a precaution against bombs. Bismarck, N.D., now guards its water tanks and reservoirs. Air space has been restricted over some nuclear power plants.

In Los Angeles and Long Beach, the Coast Guard has greatly expanded armed patrols at the world's busiest port complex, boarding and inspecting vessels several miles off the coast.

For every potential threat addressed, however, for every Jersey barrier and barbed-wire fence, another target or six is added to the list of the exposed. One day a private study warns about attacks on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and the crucial stretch of California electrical transmission line known as Path 15; the next day, Ridge expresses concern about the safety of crops in the field.

In an April 2000 paper on homeland defense, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies made the point that not every hole can be plugged and that trying to do so can backfire:

"The United States cannot afford to overreact to threats which may be repellent or horrific in character but which are of low probability or which have no more actuarial consequences than the kind of natural disasters that are a constant occurrence. It cannot give homeland defense a higher public policy priority than other risks."

In an interview, Cordesman elaborated: "Generally we deal with these sorts of things by patterns: If something causes enough deaths, it is time to fix it. Here, because of the very nature of asymmetric warfare, we are not going to be getting the same attack each time. In fact, fixing one thing might tell terrorists to go attack something else, to go find a new target."

Coast Guard Cmdr. Flynn sees a "small window of opportunity" to put in place significant security measures, a race against the apathy that will arise in the absence of a second strike.

A few weeks after his Washington testimony, he flew into Newark, N.J., to meet with shipping executives. During the flight, Flynn reflected on his performance before the Senate committee.

As he waited to testify, and listened to the placid exchanges about the movement of bureaucratic boxes, he wondered to himself:

"Are we going sit around and have one of those Washington conversations about how hard it is to restructure government, to reapportion power? You know, 'Isn't there a more painless way to do this?' All that usual stuff."

On the ground, he spent the day debriefing managers of shipping lines, port terminals and truck companies. These tended to be men with big necks and big hands and big concerns about anything that might slow down the flow of containers through the port -- part of the ever-churning conveyor belt of the global economy.

At each meeting, Flynn would suggest security measures -- better tracking of freight through computer technologies, inspection of containers as they are loaded rather than at their destinations, tamper-proof metal seals to identify suspicious cargo so that non-suspect freight could move more quickly.

"But with all of these issues," said a shipping company official who had listened warily to Flynn's pitch, "there's going to be a cost factor. Where does the cost fall?"

Flynn had a ready answer. It's a point he's been making since Sept. 11 to anybody who will listen:

In the immediate response to Sept. 11, this nation did something no foreign power would dare even attempt. It placed an almost complete blockade on its economy, grounding airplanes, closing ports, cinching up the borders. For day after day, nothing moved.

The hijackings had been interpreted not as a "breach of security," Flynn said, "but as an absence of security." So it seemed only prudent to assume that "any plane, train, ship or truck could have been a bomb."

Should a second strike occur before a credible system of security is in place, it will happen again, Flynn said. It might even be worse.

"They will shut you down," Flynn told the shippers.

Not just Newark but across the country and beyond.

"They will turn the spigot off, and they will shut you down."

This seemed to get their attention, at least for the moment.

_ _ _

Times staff writer Julie Cart in Missoula and researcher Nona Yates contributed to this report.