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Despite millions spent, Boston is vulnerable

The Berge Boston, a liquefied natural gas tanker on its way to the Distrigas terminal in Everett, headed into Boston Harbor under the flight path of Logan International Airport. The weekly shipments have drawn extraordinarily tight security since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The Berge Boston, a liquefied natural gas tanker on its way to the Distrigas terminal in Everett, headed into Boston Harbor under the flight path of Logan International Airport. The weekly shipments have drawn extraordinarily tight security since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)

First of three parts.

This story was reported and written by Stephen Kurkjian, Kevin Cullen, and Thomas Farragher of the Globe staff.

Under the brilliance of a late-summer sun, through a prism now tinted by terror, there is a fragile beauty about Boston seen from the air.

In every direction, the vista -- the sprawling harbor, the storied skyline -- is colored by the shadow of vulnerability: a cluster of petroleum tanks here, a terminal stacked with cargo containers there, a T train disappearing into a distant tunnel, the untraceable zigzag of ships and pleasure craft.

This is what Sept. 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta would have seen that crystalline morning five years ago if he had glanced down at the city he used as a staging area for the worst act of terrorism in American history.

Since then, as the country launched a costly global war, efforts to protect US soil have cost billions. An army of security workers has blossomed. Surveillance cameras are ubiquitous. There is suspicion and screening at every turn.

Yet five years later, even those sworn to protect a nation transformed by terror acknowledge that if someone with Atta's deadly diligence were to target Boston or another major American city today, the chance of success remains high. And that progress in addressing security needs has slowed, as the calamity of 9/11 has faded into memory. ``When people focus on things that could be done that have not been done, they will be shocked," said US Representative James R. Langevin , a Rhode Island Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee. ``And I think the American people will be angry."

Indeed, a Globe examination of security measures in and around Boston finds that while important progress has been made since 9/11, significant gaps remain on several fronts:

  • Sensitive areas of Boston Harbor remain clearly vulnerable, even as security experts have long seen the nation's seaports as especially attractive targets for terrorists. Officials are scrambling to secure up to $5 million to purchase a 7,000-foot-long movable barrier that could, in an emergency, seal off sections of the harbor to protect petroleum tankers, cruise ships, or thousands drawn to a waterfront fireworks festival, from a bomb on a boat.

  • Even after mass transit attacks in London and Madrid underscored trains as potential targets, officials in Boston have yet to complete a fully seamless communication network for police and emergency crews responding to a mass transit attack. ``If there were an attack today, the first responders to a T attack are, by all accounts, not any better prepared than they would have been five years ago," said State Senator Jarrett T. Barrios , chairman of the Joint Committee of Public Safety and Homeland Security.

  • Law enforcement officials generally agree that their ability to gather and analyze raw intelligence about possible terrorists has improved and that police agencies which once zealously guarded their independence have been forced to cooperate. But officials have little confidence that they could detect in time the kind of threat they deem most likely: an assault on one of the nearly limitless ``soft" targets an open society affords, from schools to hotels to shopping malls.

  • The nuclear power plant at Plymouth remains a worrisome potential target because the pool in which spent fuel rods are kept has not been fortified against attack. While the nuclear reactor is encased in a thick concrete liner which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission believes could withstand a direct hit from a terrorist-hijacked jetliner, there is no such encasement of the spent fuel cell chamber.

  • Boston did well on a test of its ability to evacuate in the event of an attack. But that showing was undercut by the fact that none of the other eight communities in the evacuation plan were included in the test. And the marked evacuation roots end at the city line.

  • Massachusetts has received some $230 million in federal anti terrorism funds -- more, proportionally, than most other states. But the spending of the funds, which has yet to be audited by the federal government, has been marred by some intramural fights among cities and towns. And some major purchases have gone awry -- including more than 1,000 Motorola emergency phones that had to be replaced.

  • And at Logan International Airport, where Atta and nine other terrorists hijacked the planes they used as missiles in Manhattan, officials acknowledge that despite elaborate security systems installed since 9/11, vulnerabilities remain, particularly in air cargo. If well-trained terrorists had a 70 percent to 75 percent chance of success five years ago, a top official estimated, today those chances have been trimmed to a hardly reassuring 35 percent to 40 percent.

    ``We have to be perfect every day," said Massport chief executive Thomas J. Kinton Jr. ``They've got to be right once."

    Even critics of the nation's lingering security lapses acknowledge that it would be impossible to eliminate the risk of terrorism. But using a more rational measuring stick -- what could reasonably have been expected five years after the attack -- many security specialists say the country has left itself remarkably unprotected along its waterfront, at its nuclear facilities, at its chemical plants, and at shipping sites that distribute cargo by air and by sea.

    ``Al Qaeda always tries to exploit the glaring vulnerability," said US Representative Edward J. Markey , a Malden Democrat and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. ``We saw that on 9/11. And we'll see it when they execute their next attack on our country. They will have found and exploited the vulnerability that was identified but not protected against."

  • Those charged with protecting passengers on trains and planes, of securing busy ports, and guarding plants containing dangerous chemicals or nuclear material say they are engaged in a high-stakes balancing act that has safety and security on one scale and the free flow of people and commerce on the other.

    ``I don't want to be so bold as to say, `Gee, nothing has happened in this country,' but the fact is that nothing's happened in this country" since Sept. 11, 2001, Kinton said. ``That doesn't give me great relief but it gives me some sense that something is working."

    Thomas M. Menino, the mayor of Boston, was standing in a florist shop in Brighton when his cellphone rang on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. It was Police Commissioner Paul Evans.

    Minutes later, the two men most responsible for public safety in Boston were standing at the huge plate glass window in Menino's City Hall office, staring down at Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Some people seemed stunned, others crying.

    ``Tommy," Evans said, ``our world has changed forever."

    A few weeks later, Evans and a half-dozen other police chiefs met with FBI director Robert S. Mueller in Washington, telling him that the way intelligence gathering took place in the United States had to change forever, too.

    The old days of one-way information trading, in which the locals were expected to tell the feds everything without getting much in return, were over, the chiefs told Mueller.

    Five years later, there is a consensus among law enforcement officials that the threat of terrorism has changed the way they do their jobs, and the culture of law enforcement. This is especially the case with the most important defense against terrorism: the gathering and sharing of information about who the bad guys are, and what they have in mind.

    Kenneth W. Kaiser, the special agent in charge of the Boston FBI office, whom many state and local officials credit with keeping Mueller's promise to put aside the FBI's traditional elitist ``lead agency" mentality, said the single Boston-based terrorism squad consisting of a dozen FBI agents and four or five state and local officers that existed before 9/11 was expanded to three separate squads, comprising 34 FBI agents and 20 state and local officers.

    Nationally, Kaiser said, the FBI has nearly doubled the number of agents working on counterterrorism, to 4,600, in five years. The number of intelligence analysts has more than doubled, to 2,100, while the number of translators has nearly doubled to 1,400, with expertise in more than 100 languages.

    In Boston, where the number of translators analyzing intelligence has doubled to 35, the importance of accurate translation of foreign languages was underscored a week after the 9/11 attacks, when a faulty translation of a benign communication led to a brief, but unnerving warning that the city was targeted for a terrorist attack. Boston-based translators speak just a dozen languages, but investigators here draw on the national bank of translators as needed.

    Meanwhile, hosting the Democratic National Convention in 2004 gave law enforcement chiefs the impetus to create an intelligence center that is now being touted nationally. At the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC, Boston police and officials from surrounding communities compile and analyze raw information about common criminals, potential subversives, and terrorists.

    Kaiser agreed that a similar culture shift is occurring at the FBI and at the state's so-called Fusion Center at Massachusetts State Police headquarters in Framingham. The center is a statewide version of the BRIC, where civilian analysts pore over field reports filed by street cops, state troopers, and federal agents.

    An independent review earlier this year, however, showed there is room for improvement. ``While the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a wealth of information and intelligence from its agencies, much of it exists in information silos," the study by CTC Inc. of Westborough for the state's Executive Office of Public Safety concluded.

    Boston police Superintendent Robert Dunford said police were able to defuse potential unrest during the DNC by engaging in behavioral profiling -- targeting potential troublemakers not by the way they looked, or what group they belonged to, but by the way they acted. He said it is a technique that Israeli security agents use to great effect against suicide bombers.

    But Dunford and other officials acknowledge that the number of vulnerable sites far exceeds their ability to deter potential attacks. ``If someone's willing to kill themselves, there's only so much you can do to protect people in an open, democratic society," he said.

    Dunford says he drives the city's streets every day, looking for vulnerabilities, and he sees many, though he won't name them.

    Kaiser does the same.

    ``We go to great lengths to harden the airport and places like that," he said. ``But you can't harden everything."

    Kaiser said there have been about 100 major terror-related prosecutions in the United States since 9/11, five of them in Boston, including the so-called ``shoe bomber" Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight from Paris to Miami.

    ``I worry about what I don't know," Kaiser said.

    From the spotless bridge of the massive $230 million liquefied natural gas tanker under his command, captain Ernst Roald Hansen shook his head in bemusement at the distinct stir his arrival at the Distrigas terminal in Everett caused on a muggy morning in early August.

    Helicopters buzzed overhead. The Tobin Bridge closed briefly. A small flotilla of law enforcement boats escorted the 940-foot-long vessel loaded with the equivalent of 3 billion cubic feet of natural gas into its berth where a 25-foot rigid hull inflatable Coast Guard vessel, a 60-caliber machine gun mounted on its bow, stood guard.

    Hansen said all the flashing blue lights, all the high-profile protection, are more about symbolism than security.

    ``I feel it is a little bit over the top," he said. ``You don't see this in other ports. Here in Boston, it is something special."

    Pointing to a petroleum depot just a few hundred yards to the south, where an oil tanker was being unloaded with no such attention, Hansen said: ``She could be a bigger threat."

    Indeed, the lead author of a study used by critics to assail the risks of LNG shipping says Hansen is right.

    ``What you don't want to do is get so hysterical about LNG that you forget about other hazardous materials imported by water into Boston which could include oil, gasoline, chemicals, and other hazardous materials," said Mike Hightower of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.

    But in Boston Harbor, where nearly 13 million tons of fuel, 241,000 cruise ship passengers, and 16.3 million tons of cargo arrive each year, officials say resources are limited and must be allocated based on intelligence about where terrorists might strike. Right now, with one huge tanker arriving every week, that means LNG.

    ``That's where we've got to put our security and our resources," Kinton, the Massport chief, said. ``If intelligence tells us it's a chemical plant, or a nuke plant next week, or the tank farms over here in Everett or Gillette Stadium or downtown Boston or any football venue on any college weekend across the country, then we've got to move our resources and respond to that intelligence."

    In short, Kinton said, the harbor ``is vulnerable. I do worry about it. It does keep me awake."

    Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the country's 361 seaports -- sprawling, complex, and interwoven systems where access is generally easy -- have increasingly been viewed as attractive targets to terrorists seeking to inflict damage to cruise ships, power plants, refineries, and fuel tanks along the water.

    ``I'm worried about a 50-foot, seagoing pleasure craft," said Daniel Goure, a security specialist with the nonpartisan Lexington Institute in Virginia. ``You put a bomb on board. I can drive it right into Boston Harbor and nobody checks and nobody knows. That's what scares me."

    Standing in his 24-hour sector command center at the foot of Hanover Street in the North End, Coast Guard Captain James L. McDonald said he can't guarantee his people would stop an attack such as that, but they monitor multiple live feeds from surveillance cameras located around the harbor, and can zoom in on suspicious vessels heading into port.

    ``We layer in a series of protections that make it very, very difficult to carry out something like that," McDonald said.

    One of those layers of protection would be a movable security barrier, a 7,000-foot floating chain of stainless steel cables encased in hard rubber that would allow law enforcement to cordon off large sections of the harbor. McDonald said a deal to secure the system is ``very, very close." The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach recently won funding for nearly-identical systems.

    ``Suffice it to say it's enough that you would preclude . . . a small boat coming through laden with explosives from getting through that barrier system," McDonald said.

    It is packed into metal containers, row upon row of brightly painted rectangles stacked high at a terminal hard by Castle Island. In the belly of the airplane, it snuggles next to the luggage and the golf clubs and the baby carriages of passengers riding just above.

    Cargo by the ton, arriving aboard container ships in Boston Harbor and lifting off hourly aboard planes from Logan Airport, represents one of the most glaring vulnerabilities in the nation's defense against terrorism. Just a fraction of it is inspected -- a dangerous loophole that security specialists say many Americans believe had closed long ago.

    ``A vulnerability -- clearly," acknowledged Kinton, the executive director and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan.

    About 22 percent of all US air cargo -- some 6 billion pounds -- is placed aboard passenger planes. A bare fraction of it is inspected. For nearly all of it, airlines rely on random checks and on what they call a known shipper program, which evaluates the credentials of shipping companies with which they do business.

    ``Five years later, there's no one who would reasonably expect that they're going to get on a passenger plane and have uninspected cargo underneath their feet," Markey said. ``Every day, that's what happens all across this country."

    Cathleen A. Berrick , a lead author of a Government Accounting Office review of the air cargo system, said that because air cargo comes in divergent shapes and sizes, existing explosive detection systems are ineffective. The percentage of passenger plane cargo that is inspected is a classified figure. But the GAO has called it ``very small."

    If technology is a barrier, so is money. Kinton said there is only so much to go around. ``Commerce needs to move," he said. ``You can have the safest airport in the world [if you] shut it down."

    And the federal Transportation Security Administration agrees. ``If we impose a security regime that kills an industry, we've failed in our job and let the terrorists win," said Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman.

    If cargo on airplanes represents an opening for terrorists to exploit, cargo on ships is too.

    Of the 11 million cargo containers that arrive in the United States each year, only about 6 percent are physically inspected. For the rest, customs officials check the manifests of importers, use X-ray or radiation screening machines for some suspect containers, and rely on voluntary cooperation from oversea shippers.

    ``We don't know anything about the 94 percent that we are not inspecting and we're not sure that the 6 percent that we are inspecting is the right percentage," said Clark K. Ervin, the former inspector general for the US Department of Homeland Security.

    Retired Coast Guard Admiral James Loy, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, called the existing system ``a big house built on sand -- sand meaning it's voluntary. Last time I checked, the bad guys weren't volunteering information that can help us. It's only as good as volunteerism allows it to be."

    US Representative Rob Simmons, a Connecticut Republican and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the only way to guarantee ironclad security in Boston Harbor, where 91,000 containers arrive each year, is to close the harbor.

    ``We can spend an infinite amount of money opening and inspecting every container headed for the United States of America and somebody can blow up Boston Harbor with a 50-foot recreational or a commercial fishing vessel packed with a dirty bomb," Simmons said. ``While you're opening every box, he might be coming up the Charles River in a speed boat."

    The evacuation signs that are spaced every three blocks along 10 principal thoroughfares in the city of Boston are a reflection of the planning -- unfinished planning -- for a terrorist attack or similar catastrophe.

    The blue-and-white signs are part of an overall plan to guide motorists onto the fastest routes from the city in the event of mass evacuation order, or from a specific neighborhood in case of a local threat. But the signs end at the city's borders. None of the eight communities in Boston's homeland security planning region -- the communities expected to accept the influx of fleeing city residents -- have agreed to Boston's plan.

    ``I'm not sure what [the city] expects us to do when people from East Boston start coming over the Chelsea and Meridian streets bridges," said Chelsea Police Captain Keith Houghton. ``Our plan is to follow the State Police evacuation routes and move them north towards Saugus."

    ``It's a problem but we're working on it," said Carlo Boccia, director of Boston's Office of Homeland Security.

    The state is awaiting the results of a $150,000 study that will recommend evacuation routes and the location of stations to supply food, medicine, shelter, and other essentials for Boston and other major urban areas, according to Jon Carlisle, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Transportation.

    But the biggest need already identified by the security specialists is a system to ensure that ``first responders" -- fire, police, and medical personnel arriving at a disaster scen -- can communicate with one another. Commanders of such emergency personnel have long complained that cooperation is hampered by inadequate radio equipment. It is a problem that plagued rescue efforts after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

    But after the long-sought radios arrived last April, problems developed. About a third of them gave off a high-pitch squeal. The city demanded that Motorola replace 1,365.

    At the MBTA, General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas said a seamless communications system for first responders to an attack on the subway is still 18 months away. ``To wire the entire system for communications of more than a dozen different agencies is a difficult task," he said.

    Elsewhere on the system greater progress has been made, Grabauskas said. The T has 310 surveillance cameras in operation now -- most of them installed since 9/11 -- with nearly 200 more on the way.

    ``I don't want to give a false sense of security to our customers," the T chief said. ``We're doing what we can."

    Initially, those who plotted the 9/11 attack were looking to spread devastation far beyond the World Trade Center.

    Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the terrorist masterminds now in captivity, has said that the plotters considered a host of other targets, including a nuclear power plant somewhere in the country.

    Five years later , nuclear plant vulnerability remains an acute concern.

    ``Nuclear is the nightmare scenario," said Markey. ``Terrorists are looking to create the largest possible deaths and mayhem, and nuclear is the route to cause that."

    The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has concluded that a nuclear power plant's chief vulnerability lies in the large pool of demineralized water in which the spent reactor fuel rods are stored. If a large airliner were to hit the nuclear reactor or the spent fuel rod pool beside it, there could be a 45 percent chance of a calamitous spill, the commission warned in a 2000 report.

    And even a small amount of contaminated spillage at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant could be disastrous for Plymouth and surrounding communities. It would likely do even more harm if the wind was blowing toward inland population centers.

    An aircraft crashing into the spent fuel chamber could result in the melting or burning of the rods, and the release of a highly toxic by-product, Cesium 137. Such a release could result in some 8,000 people contracting cancer a year or more later. The cleanup cost could run into the billions.

    That report was cited by Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly in June when he asked the NRC to hold a hearing on the danger presented by the storage of spent fuel rods before granting Pilgrim another 20-year license to operate.

    The current storage of spent fuel ``poses a significant and reasonably foreseeable environmental risk of severe fire and offsite release of a large amount of radioactivity," Reilly's brief stated.

    The spent-fuel storage system at Pilgrim is viewed as more problematic than those at plants, like the one in Seabrook, N.H., where used rods are bundled and stored underground.

    The general risk from spent fuel has, however, increased over the years as the federal government has failed to complete work on a deep mine inside Nevada's Yucca Mountain where the used fuel rods from Pilgrim and the other 103 nuclear plants across the country would be stored. As a result, the 38-foot deep pool at Pilgrim, which was designed to hold about 800 spent fuel rod assemblies, now contains 2,602.

    David Tarantino, a spokesman for Pilgrim, said other industry studies suggest that a 9/11-style attack on the nuclear facility, including its spent fuel chamber, might not result in a major radiation release.

    Entergy, the company which owns and operates Pilgrim, says that it has met NRC standards and that the storage system for spent fuel rods at the plant is scientifically sound. Tarantino said Entergy has spent $10 million since 9/11 to improve security at the plant, and that additional protection for the spent-fuel chamber may soon be required by the NRC.

    He also said the firm has moved to take over -- and increase the training and expertise of -- the force of more than 100 guards at Pilgrim who now work for an independent firm. The increased training may be needed: While the security force successfully repelled a mock terrorist attack earlier this year, Time Magazine reported last year that guards at Pilgrim failed 28 out of 29 ``table top" drills.

    And the spokesman for the Pilgrim plant downplayed the possibility that the spent-fuel chamber is vulnerable to attack, noting that it was unlikely that a terrorist would be able to maneuver a plane to strike the 50-by-50 foot chamber, located inside the building housing the nuclear reactor.

    If the nuclear plant remains a real regional safety threat, a hazard posed by a Boston chemical facility has been removed.

    Until earlier this year, the Houghton Chemical Corp. in Allston -- its pastel-painted tanks nestled next to a Doubletree Guest Suites hotel -- was among some 100 chemical facilities in the United States where the Environmental Protection Agency said an accident would put more than a million people at risk. ``We just quietly removed it," Bruce E. Houghton, the company's president, said of the stocks of vinyl acetate, a highly flammable liquid that, if attacked, could have sent a miles-long toxic cloud through the city.

    ``Boston is markedly safer with those chemicals gone from that site," said Paul Orum, a consultant to environmental public interest groups on chemical security.

    Tomorrow: A region reacts, a family makes its way

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