Local officials shoulder terror-threat burden

Long-term plan for homeland defense sees these authorities as key sentinels.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Even as US officials warn that it's "almost a certainty" the nation will be attacked, homeland-defense strategy has been shifting. Instead of putting a national guardsman or camouflaged Humvee on every corner, the new emphasis is on low-profile surveillance, counterintelligence, and technology such as fingerprint scanners in airports.

Local police are increasingly seen as key sentinels, so they're forming antiterrorism units and lining up informants. It will be an unprecedented attempt to crack terror cells by using everyone from state troopers pulling over speeders to cops on the beat. New York, for example, is even sending police to Israel to try to learn how to spot suicide bombers.

The local police will still be manning their hot lines to the FBI, which will continue to pass along threats – such as the latest, in which terrorists may target large apartment buildings. But, with literally thousands of potential targets on the ground, in the skies, and on the seas, more of the burden is being picked up by the men in blue.

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"Homeland security is primarily a state and local issue," says retired Col. Dave McIntyre, deputy director of the Anser Institute of Homeland Security in Arlington, Va., and former dean of the National War College. "This is a move away from armed guards and to intelligence agencies and to local governments doing security."

For example:

• For months after Sept. 11, New York State troopers eyed every vehicle entering the Lincoln Tunnel, which has sometimes been listed as a terrorists' target. Now, the state troopers are gone, and traffic flows into the tunnel without being stopped and checked.

• Last week, Operation Noble Eagle – NATO aircrews flying reconnaissance planes over US skies – headed back to their home bases after patrolling for 220 days.

• At the end of the month, federal funding for the National Guard runs out, and most of the 4,400 M-16-bearing troops at airports and other high-risk locations will head home.

Boston's Logan Airport is an example of how change is taking place. Some of the 140 police officers who guard the airport will be broken off into a separate antiterrorism unit. They will be trained in surveillance and countersurveillance, as well as how to recognize terrorists' behavioral patterns. They are getting help from a consultant, Rafael "Rafi" Ron, formerly the chief of security at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.

"We are working with Rafi Ron to develop a system, partially based on what the Israelis do at their airports, which includes observing passengers at an airport and potentially getting additional information on their background," says Jose Juves, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan. "If you are trying to stop them at the ticket counter, you have already lost the battle."

New York City is also heading in this direction. The city now has a deputy commissioner for intelligence and another for counterterrorism. A new counterterrorism bureau within the police department now has well over 100 officers. "There is a more thorough assessment of what should be covered with a police presence, and again, ultimately, we need intelligence information to help us," says Raymond Kelly, the police commissioner.

James Kalstrom, formerly head of the FBI's New York office, is hoping to do something similar but on a larger scale in New York State. Mr. Kalstrom, now the state's terrorism czar, wants to make the state and local police part of the intelligence-gathering operation. "There are 75,000 state police who know the community. They know what is normal and what is not normal. They are the people who neighbors complain to," he explains.

For example, one of the Sept. 11 terrorists was stopped by a state trooper the day before the attacks for driving 90 miles per hour. The trooper wrote a summons for speeding. "If only the trooper had more access to information," says Kalstrom. "He might have done some more checking, maybe asked five or six more questions, and maybe would have taken the person in for more questioning."

In an attempt to improve law-enforcement communication, the state is building a dedicated communication system to share information instantaneously, says Gov. George Pataki. Furthermore, he says, communication with Washington has improved.

Although it's difficult to find small terrorists cells, it's not impossible, says Kalstrom. "We broke up the blind sheikh," he says, referring to Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, who was convicted as part of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

But he notes that relying on satellites won't be enough for the intelligence community on the ground. "The CIA is not adequate for the next few decades," he says.

In fact, critics say the government still has a long way to go to improve homeland defense. For example, there are still thousands of foreign students whom authorities are trying to locate. "The Immigration and Naturalization Service is very ineffective," says Howard Safir, former police commissioner of New York and now a partner at Safir Rosetti, a security consulting firm. In addition, Mr. Safir points out that the new Transportation Security Agency is not meeting its deadlines, such as those requiring high-tech luggage scans at every airport.

Safir says he's even more worried about the caterers and mechanics who work on the underbelly of the aircraft. "We don't know," he says, "if the people who work on aircraft are the people they claim to be."

• Abraham McLaughlin in Washington contributed.

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