Friday, Aug. 13, 2004 | 5:18 a.m.
August 14 - 15, 2004
With the dust still settling on the flap between law enforcement agencies here and in Detroit over alleged terrorist surveillance of the Strip, the big question that remains is:
Is Las Vegas safer today than before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks?
The answer, based on a consensus of safety and security experts, is a qualified "Yes."
The good news, they say, is that we're better prepared to fight terrorism now than we were three years ago, both nationally and in Clark County. That's because there is more information-sharing among federal, state and local agencies and better analysis of terrorist threats.
But security experts say we still have a long way to go in preparation for potential terrorism in the valley. That's because we haven't spent nearly enough money on local training and equipment and don't have nearly enough emergency room capacity to handle a mass casualty event.
"We are certainly safer for a variety of reasons," Las Vegas city emergency manager Timothy McAndrew said. "The public is far more aware of what is going on in world affairs than they were before 9/11. The message has gotten out that people should be putting together their own emergency home kits and I think they have heeded that advice.
"Public safety officials and infrastructure officials are on top of the situation. We're seeing more cooperation and collaboration at all levels of government."
As for heightened public awareness, McAndrew cited the example of a man filling a magazine rack on the Strip who alerted authorities last month when he spotted a suspicious device that he thought might have been a bomb. Portions of the Strip were shut down for two hours until it was determined that the object was a broken radio.
"Three or four years ago thousands of people would have walked past that without saying anything," McAndrew said.
And on Thursday federal and local authorities announced at a Las Vegas press conference that they were reviewing videotapes of Las Vegas resorts that were recovered from a New York man who was arrested in July on immigration charges. The significance was the speed with which the federal government shared the tapes with local law enforcement, which was a departure from past practices.
Despite increased cooperation among agencies, much still needs to be done to improve terrorism preparedness locally.
Since 2000 Clark County and its municipalities have received $34.1 million in federal funds for protective equipment, explosives remediation equipment, biological and chemical monitoring devices, medical supplies and training to help first responders combat terrorism.
But in an assessment performed by the county in October it was calculated that $750 million was still needed to adequately equip public safety officers, Clark County emergency manager Jim O'Brien said.
"According to our assessment, only 4 percent of our needs have been met so far," O'Brien said.
"We're also not in very good shape to handle a surge of hospital patients, which has been demonstrated by the mental health crisis that we have. Our emergency rooms are nearly full at any one time."
And even the most optimistic of security experts agree on another point: no matter what we do, we will never be fully prepared to combat terrorism because terrorist groups such as al-Qaida are willing to die for their causes and have organizations that are difficult to penetrate.
"We will never get to the point where we can say that we have done enough," Wynn Resorts executive Larry Mefford, a former FBI administrator, said. "Terrorists aren't stupid. They change and they adapt. Today they go after the aviation industry. Tomorrow it might be the food industry.
"We have too much to protect. So you have to focus on the intentions of the terrorists. You have to infiltrate the terrorist organization and overhear their conversations. You have to have someone in the inner circle feeding us information and that's difficult to do."
On a national level, the Department of Homeland Security, formed in January 2003 as a result of 9/11, believes it has orchestrated improvements that protect U.S. citizens on land, in the air and by sea, department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.
"We have a better idea of who is entering our country and we can track them against the terrorist watch list," Roehrkasse said. "We have added roughly 1,000 agents to watch our borders and we have deployed unmanned aerial vehicles in Arizona to help us watch the Mexican border and track illegal immigrants."
All commercial passenger aircraft in the United States are now equipped with secure cockpit doors. Thousands of new employees have been trained as air marshals and passenger screeners and thousands of flight officers are now carrying firearms.
"From January 2003 through July we have intercepted 12.4 million prohibited items at airports," Roehrkasse said. "These items have included hatchets, box cutters and large scissors."
"If something seems out of place, the ship will be met by the U.S. Coast Guard," Roehrkasse said.
Federal authorities have conceded that they only have enough manpower and technology to inspect a small percentage of the containers once they arrive in U.S. ports.
But Roehrkasse said the bottom line is that great strides have been made by the government since 9/11.
"We've made significant progress but I don't think anyone would suggest that we don't have a long way to go," Roehrkasse said.
Because of 9/11, the FBI has changed its focus from reacting to terrorism to a proactive, early detection mode that attempts to stop terrorist events before they occur, Mefford said. The senior vice president of external affairs for Wynn Resorts should know, since he retired last year as executive assistant director of the FBI. In that post, which made him the No. 3 man in the agency, he was in charge of counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
"Part of the Patriot Act and the attorney general's guidelines have been reworked to allow the FBI to share information with local law enforcement agencies, foreign governments and the public," Mefford said. "There were stringent regulations before 9/11 on sharing information and that has been relaxed.
"When you talk about connecting the dots you need to know the threats out there so that you can connect the dots."
The videotape flap -- in which Metro Police has had to defend itself from allegations that it ignored information from federal authorities in Detroit on potential terrorist threats in Las Vegas -- points out the disconnect that can occur when local and federal law enforcement agencies aren't on the same page.
Turf battles have also been known to occur among bureaus within the same agency, which can impede information-sharing from city to city.
Witness the differences of opinion between the U.S. Attorney's offices in Las Vegas and Detroit. The Detroit office failed in 2002 to initially disclose to Las Vegas authorities that it possessed a videotape of Strip hotels that was to be used as evidence in the trial of four suspected terrorists.
"Those types of issues have been improved," Mefford said. "But they still exist because you're dealing with personalities. You're dealing with human beings and they have frailties but there's no tolerance for this type of behavior at the top."
As evidence of improvement in communications, it was revealed Thursday that Metro Police was given swift opportunity to view five videotapes confiscated by federal authorities from Kamran Akhatar, a 35-year-old Elmhurst, N.Y., resident who was arrested on July 20 in North Carolina.
Akhatar, a native of Pakistan, was arrested only on immigration violation charges but was detained while filming the Charlotte, N.C., skyline. The videotapes, which included shots of Las Vegas resorts, were recovered from his apartment by New York's FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force on Aug. 3 and were delivered to federal, state and local authorities in Las Vegas nine days later.
"Since Sept. 11 we have tried our hardest to speed up our lines of communication, and I think this is a pretty good example of what we have accomplished," Ellen Knowlton, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Las Vegas, said.
When it comes to information-sharing at the federal level, Mefford cited the creation two years ago of a terrorism threat information center manned by the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and military intelligence. Terrorism threat information is now jointly analyzed by members of those agencies under one roof.
And those agencies are now working with the same terrorist watch list, instead of using separate lists.
"Prior to 9/11 we had 35 joint terrorism task forces around the United States run by the FBI and including local law enforcement," Mefford said. "We now have 84, including the one in Las Vegas, where all the local agencies are allowed to participate. They check out all the threats and collect intelligence."
Before Jerry Bussell became Nevada's first state homeland security chief in November 2002, there had been no single state-level coordinator that local agencies could have turned to for emergency funding and manpower in the event of a terrorist attack.
Bussell put that communications network together by establishing relations with local police departments, federal agencies, Nellis Air Force Base and Nevada companies that would be involved in response to a terrorist attack.
"I knew who handled security in Washington," Bussell said. "I knew who my FBI contacts were and the same with the CIA. Before that, those contacts with the state were non-existent. And I cannot say enough about the cooperation the state has received from Sheriff Bill Young and his team."
Bussell also helped see to it that Clark County receives 70 percent of the federal funds sent to Nevada for homeland security, in keeping with Southern Nevada's share of the state population.
He resigned from his post as advisor to Gov. Kenny Guinn in late May and is now a professor at the new Institute of Security Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. But before he resigned, he recommended that the state move the homeland security adviser from Carson City to Las Vegas, an idea that has yet to be adopted.
"If most of your risk is in Clark County, that's where you should put your resources, including your money, training and equipment," Bussell said.
A glaring weakness Bussell said must also be addressed in the fight against terrorism is the lack of training for first responders, such as patrol officers, when it comes to recognizing potential terrorist threats. And he recommended that workshops become available to the public to provide similar instruction.
"There is no intelligence-gathering analysis at the street cop level," Bussell said. "It means an officer may see something but not pass it on, so we haven't pushed intelligence gathering down far enough. You've got to train them to look at things that are terrorist-related or homeland security-related."
An effort to improve terrorist-related intelligence-gathering at the local level was begun two years ago when the FBI as a pilot project opened a regional intelligence center in Las Vegas that is staffed by both federal agents and officers of local law enforcement departments. This is in addition to the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Las Vegas that also includes members of the Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"The communication from my perspective has always been good locally," FBI Special Agent Todd Palmer of Las Vegas said. "The regional intelligence center seems to be working well. We get information on a daily basis from national and international sources that is examined to see whether it has a direct nexus to the Las Vegas area. We now know more about the threats that exist out there."
While law enforcement officials say they know of no specific terrorist threat involving Las Vegas, they have repeatedly stated that the city remains a possible target. So are we safer as a community than before 9/11?
"I would say yes," Palmer said. "I totally believe law enforcement is working hard to make it a safer community."
That sentiment was echoed by Metro Lt. Keith Carter, head of the counterterrorism unit of Metro's Homeland Security Bureau, which was formed in 2002 in response to 9/11. Through its telephone hotline, 229-8386, the bureau gets about 30 calls a week related to terrorism, and maybe half of those tips are worth checking out by its trained team, Carter said.
"We would be foolish as people who live here not to be concerned about terrorism," Carter said. "We have not seen a credible threat here. Obviously there have been situations where Las Vegas has been considered a potential city of interest. But we can't function in code red all the time.
"I've lived here for 30 years and my family lives here and I have a ton of relatives who live here and I haven't asked any of them to move. I do believe everyone should have some method of protection, whether it's a first aid kit or the storage of food and water. But I don't think we need to be overly paranoid."
In an effort to keep patrol officers abreast of potential terrorist threats, the Homeland Security Bureau issues daily bulletins for them to read. But Carter said that because patrol officers must respond to a variety of calls, it would be unwise to overburden them with terrorist-prevention duties if it meant limiting their abilities to pursue burglars, robbers and law-breaking motorists.
"If we only focus on terrorism, we would not be doing our jobs," Carter said. "There's no question this community needs more cops. I'm not saying that just because we've got a tax question coming up but we do need more people out there.
"We also need more terrorism analysts. It's hard to find people who have the right type of training because the military and federal government also need them."
Also on the wish list for local law enforcement is a radio system that would enable patrol officers from different agencies in the valley to communicate over their car and mobile radios through shared channels without having to rely on telephones.
While there is still a long list of improvements that must be made to better protect the valley from a terrorist attack, many things have been accomplished since 9/11 to enhance public safety locally. Among them was the establishment of a secure Web site that law enforcement, fire and emergency management agencies use daily to trade information. Hospital emergency rooms now are connected to a communications system that enables paramedics to know at any time whether beds are available.
McCarran International Airport, which before 9/11 screened only international baggage for explosives, now scans all bags. The airport now has 750 trained baggage and passenger screeners and is expecting to add 300 more by January. On-call Metro response to any part of the airport is now considerably faster than the three-minute window that was in place before 9/11 and McCarran has also increased its perimeter patrols.
"Air travel is safer now than it was in the period leading up to 9/11 because the regulations are more stringent," Rosemary Vassiliadis, the airport's deputy director, said.
Local authorities have even addressed the possibility that a terrorist might try to take out an airplane with a shoulder-supported bazooka.
"That has been studied and there are measures in place that have determined where the vulnerable places in the county might be," Vassiliadis said.
On the public health front -- especially as it pertains to a potential biological or chemical attack -- an early warning system was put in place after 9/11 whereby area physicians alert the Clark County Health District about the spread of possible diseases. That came into play during the last flu season, enabling the health district to issue a public warning to get immunizations.
And within months the health district expects that a biological and chemical testing laboratory it established earlier this year will become fully accredited by the federal Centers for Disease Control.
"The biggest advantage is being able to test suspect agents here rather than having to send samples to the lab in Reno," Dr. Donald Kwalick, the county's chief health officer, said. "Up until this year we were the only major city in the United States that didn't have a lab within 100 miles capable of testing these types of agents."
The resorts, whose security chiefs had been meeting on a regular basis before 9/11, have since made terrorism prevention one of their top priorities.
"We have changed the focus of our meetings to addressing homeland security issues while maintaining our proprietary interests," former Sheriff Jerry Keller, vice president of security at Wynn Las Vegas, said. "We share what we're doing to harden our hotel perimeters. We have a common stake when it comes to security.
"I'd say absolutely we're safer now because of the ability of public safety to present a defense to anyone who might try to target us."
While the county has received federal funds to develop a plan to protect critical facilities such as pipelines, fuel tank farms and the valley's resorts, O'Brien said there isn't sufficient money available to "put the community back together" should it sustain a large-scale terrorist attack.
"Preparedness begins with the individual," O'Brien said. "People have to have emergency plans and supply kits and they have to stay informed. We have great people working, not just first-line responders, but back of the house people who do the coordination and support.
"But we tell people to be prepared to be on your own for three days because there are a lot of things that would have to be addressed if we were attacked."
Sun reporter Jace Radke contributed to this report.