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Federal assistance seen lagging

By Fred Kaplan, Globe Staff, 9/10/2002

Unique vulnerabilities
On Sept. 11, the Brooklyn Bridge served as an evacuation route for thousands in Lower Manhattan. Specialists say an evacuation of the entire borough would be impractical in the event of a larger attack. (AP File Photo)

Brave beyond measure
Firefighter Mike Kehoe heads up a stairwell in Tower 1 as workers head down. Unlike 343 of his colleagues, Kehoe made it out of the tower before its collapse. (AP File Photo)

NEW YORK - On Nov. 12, the day American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in Queens just after taking off from John F. Kennedy Airport, Mark Holman, the deputy to US Homeland Security chief Thomas Ridge, happened to be in New York.

Holman was so impressed with the police and fire departments' response to the disaster, he later told a conference of city and state officials that he had recommended, and Ridge had agreed, to focus the homeland security program in that direction - improving the ability to respond to terrorist attacks.

Raymond Kelly, New York's police commissioner, was not pleased. As he told a meeting of city planners, he already knew how to do crisis-response. What he needed from the US government were the intelligence and the technology to prevent attacks.

One year after Sept. 11, officials say the gulf between federal priorities and the city's needs - the divergence in lessons learned from the deadly terrorist strike - has only widened.

''We're doing well, within the confines of our ability to do well,'' said James Kallstrom, former director of the FBI's New York office, now Governor George Pataki's senior adviser on counterterrorism. ''But the feds have to carry most of this issue. It's my impression Washington is getting back to business-as-usual.''

A veteran national-security official who deals with terrorism, and asked not to be identified, agreed: ''Nobody is asking, `What do we need to protect urban areas? How much does it cost to do x, y, and z? And how much are we spending on those things now?' ''

New York City has unique vulnerabilities - the high densities of people, the boastfully towering buildings, and above all the fact that its main borough, Manhattan, is an island. Twelve bridges and tunnels connect Manhattan to the rest of the world. Evacuation, as an option to deal with dire emergencies, is so impractical that no official bothers to give it a thought. (Imagine the Holland Tunnel at the start of a holiday weekend, multiply the traffic jam 100-fold, and add panic.)

What unnerves many New Yorkers is the prospect not so much of another 9/11, but of a much deadlier attack involving chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. It is in this realm that state and city governments can do only so much - and, many complain, federal agencies are not doing nearly enough.

The US Department of Energy's weapons laboratories, for example, have developed prototypes of sophisticated sensors that can detect the chemical, biological, or radiological emissions from weapons of mass destruction. However, the government has given cities no money to buy the sensors - or even technical advice on assessing or using them.

President Bush has coupled the idea of creating a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security with a pledge not to spend any more money on its mission. Yet money, officials say, is what the preparations most lack. The Energy Department does operate the Radiological Assistance Program, which on paper helps each of 10 regions across the country develop the ability to detect the radiation from a nuclear bomb. But neither its mission nor its budget has been expanded since 9/11.

''Region 1 consists of New York, Boston, and everything in between,'' a national-security official familiar with the program said. ''The total budget for Region 1 is $400,000. This isn't enough to prepare a proper threat-assessment study, much less to do anything about the threat afterward.

''The frustrating thing,'' the official added, ''is that doing something serious doesn't cost all that much money. We're talking tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, not billions. But nobody has the vision to create a system.''

Weapons-detecting sensors could be placed on each of the 12 bridges or tunnels that lead into Manhattan. In this respect, the borough's island status could be exploited in a way that enhances its security.

Kelly said federal agents have set up sensors - especially those designed to detect the radiation of a nuclear bomb - along some of these routes, from time to time. However, some officials would like to see a permanent deployment. Nobody claims they would be perfect. Weapons can be shielded from these sensors to some degree. Still, they would have some effect. And, one US weapons specialist estimates, ''You could probably do this for $50 million. Compared with how much we spend on other security problems, this is peanuts.''

Before the Winter Olympic games in Salt Lake City, the FBI had the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore labs set up a sensor, which they had jointly developed, around the games site. The labs had only one untested prototype of the sensor, which was called BASIS, for Biological Aerosol Sentry and Information System. Yet in field tests around the Olympics site, the machine worked.

New York officials heard about this, and asked whether they could have the same sensors. They were turned down. ''The rationale,'' one official recalled, ''was that they were just prototypes, not an off-the-shelf capability. Nobody thought to say, `Now if you want to buy another prototype, here's what you do.' ''

Bryan Wilkes, spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the US Energy Department's division that deals with nuclear weapons, replied, when asked about this, ''We just do research and development. We're not set up to do procurement or technical assistance.''

To some, this is precisely the problem: Nobody is in charge.

A New York-area official who handles emergency management, and asked not to be identified, said, ''People from the different weapons labs come through here like snake-oil salesmen, offering their sensor technologies. . . . We've talked to DOE about the need for single-stop shopping on technical assistance, but they're not helping. No one has a national strategic plan for rolling this stuff out."

The money falls short even for the task the Homeland Security office considers most important: improving the ability to respond to attacks. ''There's a huge, gaping hole in first-responder technology - protective suits, reconnaissance equipment, stuff like that,'' Kallstrom said. ''We're hoping it comes through in the '03 budget.''

A changed city

Still, if terrorists mounted another attack on the scale of Sept. 11, New York and other cities would be better prepared to deal with it, perhaps even to stop it, than was the case a year ago.

Since taking over the New York Police Department in January, Kelly has hired a former US Marine commander, Frank Libutti, to be his counterterrorism commissioner, and a former CIA director of operations, David Cohen, to be his intelligence commissioner.

More than 900 police officers work full-time for Libutti, 120 of them in a joint FBI-NYPD counterterrorist task force. Libutti's centerpiece is the ''Hercules'' team - consisting of an armored vehicle, several officers, bomb-sniffing dogs, and other sensors - which patrols what Kelly calls ''sensitive locations.'' The team mounts these patrols, or raids, Kelly said, ''every day, several times a day, at irregular hours, with no set pattern,'' sometimes in response to intelligence, sometimes ''just as a deterrent, to disrupt any reconnaissance.''

Cohen's division, which includes 27 certified Arabic speakers, conducts its own intelligence analyses of material from all over. The flow of information from the FBI is also ''much better than it used to be,'' Kelly said.

The city has changed the way it works in other ways, as well.

When the Twin Towers fell, the more than 2,800 people who died there included 343 New York firefighters, half the number that had died on the job in the department's 131-year history. A 250-page study by the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm, ordered by Mayor Bloomberg and released last month, revealed that these firefighters, while brave beyond measure as individuals, fell victim not only to terrorists but to chaos within their own organizations.

On Sept. 11, firefighters were using antiquated radios that had little ability to receive or transmit signals between the floors of a high rise. The Fire Department had purchased new UHF radios in 1999 but tossed them aside after they failed in one test. Now the radios are undergoing a monthlong trial in Staten Island. If they work well, they will be quickly distributed across the city.

Many of the firefighters who rushed into the blazing towers also did so without first going to the staging area - in part because they did not know where the staging area was. Police officers, too, instinctively drove to the scene, clogging the roadways and leaving no reserve forces to deal with a crisis elsewhere.

Kelly and Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta have both implemented protocols requiring officers to report to staging areas, explicitly calling on large numbers of them to hold back, and creating joint task forces to develop coordinated strategies.

Part of the confusion on 9/11 stemmed from the fact that a high-tech counterterrorism security bunker, which then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had constructed at great cost, could not be used because it was on the 23d floor of Tower 7 at the World Trade Center. Tower 7, a 47-story building, caught fire after the collapse of the 110-story Twin Towers and crumbled later that day.

One early lesson of Sept. 11 was that a high-rise complex is no place to put a security bunker.

The mayor has now set up a command site in a windowless warehouse in Brooklyn. The Police Department has requested $270 million to build its own underground command bunker, equipped with the same maps, phone banks, and surveillance gear that currently dominate the eighth floor of Lower-Manhattan headquarters.

Many Manhattan corporations have followed suit, secretly retaining and stocking backup sites in one of New York City's other four boroughs or out of town, so that they would be able to continue business should Manhattan become inaccessible. The New York Stock Exchange, which had been planning to construct a tower one block from its Wall Street trading floor, has dropped that idea - mainly for security reasons - and is publicly considering backup sites in Brooklyn, Queens, and suburban Westchester County. The other stock exchanges, more quietly, are making similar moves.

''Sept. 11 completely changed the calculation of business location,'' said Kathryn Wylde, president of the New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce. ''Before, it was based on cost. Now the No. 1 factor for any company is ensuring the security of its talent and the continuity of its operations. Everything else, including cost, is secondary.''

The attack is also affecting architecture, public transportation, and construction codes. ''There isn't a single aspect of urban design that won't be affected,'' said Richard Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress.

New safeguards

The only certainty about the future of the World Trade Center site is that Tower 7 will be rebuilt. Carl Galisano, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architectural firm designing the tower, listed several features inspired by lessons of 9/11. They include more fireproof building materials; wider stairwells, which lead outside rather than into a lobby; and repeater-cables, to boost firefighters' radio signals. (The Fire Department wants the city to install these cables in all high rises, a step that would cost at least $150 million.)

Many companies are also paying closer attention to their security. Jeff Schlanger, chief operating officer of Kroll Associates, a prominent private security firm, said business since Sept. 11 has increased tenfold. His clients even include some public entities, most notably the New Jersey Transit, which operates the state's commuter railroad and has hired Kroll to instruct all its employees how to spot suspicious activities and what to do about them.

Individual New Yorkers have grown more suspicious, too. ''There's been an enormous change in people's sensitivity to disruption,'' said Mitchell Moss, professor of urban studies at New York University. ''Before, we were very blase by any sort of disruption. Now we're very attentive and responsive to it. A loud plane overhead, a weird guy getting on the subway, smoke from a fire somewhere - we now wonder, instinctively, `Is this some act of terrorism?'

''The greatest lesson of Sept. 11,'' Moss added, ''is that New Yorkers are now aware, in a way we never were, that we are vulnerable.''

This story ran on page A9 of the Boston Globe on 9/10/2002.
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