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Warnings and Worries

May 21, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: How do those on the front lines of protecting the public respond to terror warnings like the ones issued in recent days?

For that, we turn to: Thomas Menino, the mayor of Boston and currently president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Robert Olson, the police chief in Minneapolis and currently president of the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization of big city police chiefs. Charles Barclay, president of the American Association of Airport Executives, the organization of managers of airports nationwide. He also served on the airport security rapid response team, created by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta after September 11 to come up with recommendations on airport security.

And retired Colonel Randy Larsen, Director of the Anser Institute for Homeland Security, a non-profit research firm. He helped develop “Dark Winter,” a two-week exercise in the summer of 2001 that simulated a major terrorist attack on the U.S. He spent 32 years in the Army and Air Force. Welcome to you all.

Randy Larsen, beginning with you: How useful are terror warnings of the sorts we’ve seen in the last few days?

COL. RANDY LARSEN (Ret.), Anser Institute: Well, these warnings, Margaret, need to go into two categories: First of all, general awareness for the public. I was a little bit disturbed this morning to find out in a recent poll that only one-third of the American public believe there are going to be future attacks. I can’t tell you it is going to be tomorrow, next week or a year from now but I can guarantee you there are going to be future attacks on this country from international terrorists. So that’s the general awareness category that we all need.

On the other hand, we need specific information for governors, mayors and county executives that they can make decisions. One of the problems is we’re spending a lot of money on overtime for first responders and police officers. Of all the money we sent New York City shortly after the attacks, 70 percent of that went to overtime. So one of these days we are going to have to cut down on the overtime and save it for when we need it. We are also draining the energy of those first responders out there. So what we really need is specific information for state and county officials and we need general awareness for the American public.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mayor Menino, what use do mayors like yourself put on these warnings, especially when they’re generalized warnings like the one the vice president issued?

MAYOR THOMAS MENINO, Boston: We rely on the intelligence we have. The police department works with federal officials and the information we get back from them we appropriately deploy our police in the City of Boston. We have over the last eight months, spent a lot of money on overtime and it is draining our city coffers. They’re talking about federal system; they’re talking about the money for first responders. None of that is coming to cities. Cities are really draining their resources at this time.

And also, you know, the public– I wasn’t surprised by the poll, because of all the warnings over the last eight months and, you know, how many times can you go out there and say something is going to happen and nothing happens? People lose confidence in the warnings. But you know, I think the police and the FBI are working hard on these issues.

MARGARET WARNER: How often do mayors get specific warnings but maybe unpublicized of ones we saw this afternoon where the FBI warns the New York Police Department and the New York Police Department goes about protecting say landmarks in New York. How often do you get the specific ones?

MAYOR THOMAS MENINO: I’ve only gotten one call from the Attorney General saying that we were going to– Boston was going to be under attack by terrorism. We checked with everyone else. No one had any information. That was on a Friday. On the Sunday, the FBI said we cannot corroborate this warning.

So what happened, it froze our city for a whole weekend because they told the state and the city, well, we weren’t talking to anyone and it got out to the press and the press was asking me all weekend, what is going to happen to our city? Well, we had no information — our intelligence. We had a good task force working– Boston police and the FBI for over the last several years. So we had all the information that was so-called, the good information, turned bad. And so it is the warnings that people get frightened about. I don’t know how you deal those.

MARGARET WARNER: Chief Olson, do you find these warnings useful and how good is the specificity of the intelligence that police chiefs like yourself and in other major cities are getting from the FBI and from intelligence?

ROBERT OLSON, Police Chief, Minneapolis, MN: I have to say that since September, these alerts have gotten a lot better. As that mayor mentioned, there was a lot of chaos in those early months on just what kind of information was coming out. And so now it was refreshing to hear today, again pointing out the fact that we are going to be targeted at some juncture.

And so the issue of specificity is not so much important as it relates to the entire country, but to the specificity of the region and/or city of where they have definitive intelligence information that something might happen. This has to get to us so that we can make appropriate moves within our organizations to deal with it.

MARGARET WARNER: So is it getting to you? Are there a lot of specific warnings that you all are getting that we in the public just don’t know about?

ROBERT OLSON: We are getting some. But I think even more so we are getting some of the information that they really don’t have, which I think is very refreshing, again. We have a great relationship with the FBI. Bob Mueller has done really a great job in reaching out to local law enforcement. And at least in our city for sure and several of our members, they are now getting direct calls from the SAC saying something is up and here is the information we have. So we think this is all very– going in the right direction.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Barclay, what about the airports? There has been a lot of discussion. We ran a little bit of a hearing today about the fact that there were warnings back in 2001, some just from the FBI to the FAA, some cases the FAA moved them on to the airlines and the airports, but airlines and airports said there wasn’t enough specific. Are these warnings being responded to in any different way now?

CHARLES BARCLAY, American Association of Airport Executives: No, in the aviation system we’ve had for sometime a series of levels of security alertness similar to those that have been introduced for the nation, and we have been ratcheting up those levels based on security warnings. But we need to improve the aviation system, much as you’re hearing the other panelists talk about the need for local governments, and airports are creatures of local government, to get better information, to get more information and to get more specific information. I don’t think it’s surprising that this is an evolving process of getting these warnings better because the problem is fairly new.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying that in the absence of specific warnings, they aren’t very useful? Or are you saying you have to be at a heightened state of alertness all the time anyway, so the warnings are sort of immaterial?

CHARLES BARCLAY: Well, if we’re at the highest level of warning now and so if we could get specific information about a localized threat and a specific kind of threat, we certainly make changes there. But for aviation, the important issue is that we’re now facing what is virtually a military kind of threat, a special ops team of suicide pilots on 9/11 that would have trained to get around whatever security measures we had in. So what we now believe we’ve got to do is put in a series of security measures, both public and very importantly non-public, and then vary those procedures so that the enemy doesn’t know exactly what they’re going to get in terms of security. And that’s the effort we’re going at. If we can get better intelligence on specific threats, we’ll do even better at those targeted items.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Colonel Larsen, if though, the reality is that most of these warnings are going to continue to be generalized because there isn’t a lot of specific information, and authorities still want to be trying to prevent them, what are the greatest areas of vulnerability, do you think, in a generic sense of this country now post-9/11?

COL. RANDY LARSEN (Ret.): I think one thing the American people need to understand is that in the transportation community, most of the people in transportation community talk about the airline system as Fort Knox. It is the best protected system we have.

Can we make improvements? Yeah. But I tell you this weekend my wife is going to fly to Texas to see the grandkids and I’m going to go give a speech in Illinois. And people should feel secure to fly on the airplanes. However, other elements of the transportation system, those six million containers that come into our seaports every year, less than 2 percent are inspected. If you are a terrorist, you have a 98 percent chance of sending a nuclear weapon in a shipping container in the United States. We need to do something about that.

And we cannot defend our ports by working in our ports. We have to defend an international transportation system, which means we have to work with our trading partners closely to do that. One hundred and three nuclear power plants, 68 of them are next to a navigable water way; there’s a threat for you.

Look, I’m a retired Air Force pilot. We would refer to the United States as a target-rich environment. We are not going to make it 100 percent secure. What we do have to do is to educate the American people. And I think we can look at the model they use in Israel. One of the five elements of their counter terrorism program is preparing the general public psychologically for more attacks. We need do that in this country.

MARGARET WARNER: But then you are not talking about preparing the public to help prevent attacks but to be ready for whatever comes?

COL. RANDY LARSEN (Ret.): We need to have a realistic understanding. Look, between Friday night and Tuesday morning this weekend, 250 Americans will die on highways. We know that’s a fact. That will happen. Now, are you not going to drive a car? I’m going to drive a car. I let my daughter drive a car. But I will do is say, wear your seatbelt, say don’t drink while you drive. Be a defensive driver. There are certain things we can do. And it’s the same thing for the anti-terrorism – we’re protecting ourselves. We need to remain vigilant.

MARGARET WARNER: Mayor Menino, how helpful– how much guidance are mayors getting from the feds, from federal officials, in terms of identifying their areas of greatest vulnerability, whether it’s their port, whether it’s their power stations, or whatever? Or is this something you have to do on your own?

MAYOR THOMAS MENINO: For the most part, like I said earlier, we have a task force between the FBI and the Boston police that identify certain locations. The colonel was right on the water ways. We have LNG tankers that come right into Boston Harbor to a residential area.


MAYOR THOMAS MENINO: Natural gas. And that’s a real explosive issue. And I’ve been dealing with that with the Coast Guard for the last eight months. Yeah, for years it came here, but the world has changed forever. How do we deal with that? Some of those ships come from Algeria. What do we know who is getting on the ships? That’s an issue also that we have to deal with. We are trying to deal with the Coast Guard and those issues.

One of the things I think is hopeful in all this is Tom Ridge. Tom Ridge has been very helpful to cities of America over the last several months. He is responsive. You know people say he needs more power. He sure does need more power because he is the most responsible federal official we have.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what specifically do you get from him and his office?

MAYOR THOMAS MENINO: What you get from Tom Ridge is advice, help and information. And that’s what we need. Sure, we would like to have resources, and that’s another battle we’ll go through, but at least we have a contact, somebody who will talk to us, and give us the information we need to deal with the situation. Like when the LNG’s were coming into Boston Harbor, he gave us information and worked with us on those issues. That’s what we need.

MARGARET WARNER: Chief Olson, same general question to you: How much assistance and guidance are police chiefs getting from federal intelligence and law enforcement officials in terms of protecting potential targets, in terms of prevention?

ROBERT OLSON: Well, like Boston, we’re involved in a joint terrorism task force. We have regular meetings. The FBI and all of the other federal agencies meet with the locals, and we’ve done all of those kinds of groundwork things with them. I have to say that the collaboration and cooperation since September has quadrupled in its level and it has been really a great start. The FBI specifically, who local law enforcement does most of their interaction with the federal government with, has just really been great in reaching out to local law enforcement.

MARGARET WARNER: But can you give me an example, a for instance, without naming a city, of the kinds of information or tips you are getting from the federal level about a particular installation that you all need to step up protection on or a particular kind of facility?

ROBERT OLSON: Most of these things are pretty well obvious. And, in fact, when you look at it, it is the local officials and the state officials that have a far better perspective on the importance of some of these installations — the nuclear power plants and all those things are obvious. But there are all the other things that the local communities patrol know more than they do, and it is us advising them as we discuss the issues that need protection.

MARGARET WARNER: And Chief Barclay, in terms of the airports, again, how specific, how useful are the federal law enforcement intelligence officials? I mean is this now something they’re running, or are the airlines running it or are you airport managers running it, or is everybody involved in it at once?

CHARLES BARCLAY: Well, no, the information is all coming from the same federal agencies that are feeding the information to other branches of the local government, and that comes into FAA. They parse it out — or now TSA. And they’re sending it to the airlines if it those do with passengers and baggage and they’re now doing the screening in the airports. The airports are responsible for perimeter security and the police protection and parking and some of the other things at airports. So it depends on the kind of threat as to what you’re getting but we do need to– we need to vastly improve the intelligence we’re picking up and the method of distributing it and the more we can do with specific targeted information, it’s going to be much more useful in aviation.

MARGARET WARNER: I guess what I’m really asking you is apparently last summer what the airlines said was, well, this they gave us warnings but they didn’t suggest any specific security steps. The FAA didn’t say start barring your cockpit doors. In other words, are you getting specific suggestions, or are you getting the warnings and then you all are supposed to figure out what to do?

CHARLES BARCLAY: No, we’re getting– we are not getting specific warnings but we are getting specific direction to increase security, but that’s a general increase in security — like increasing the number of patrols and doing sweeps of terminals.

MARGARET WARNER: Gentlemen, we have to leave it there. Thank you all.