Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
As he walks into the anti-terrorism office, Rod Swanson picks up a bullhorn and blasts a warning of “red badge.”
The large room, filled with cubicles, looks like those on other floors of the FBI building in Las Vegas.
But in government jargon the office of the Joint Terrorism Task Force of Nevada is a “SCIF” — a secret compartmentalized information facility — which means it is constantly dealing with top-secret intelligence.
So on those rare occasions when someone who is not authorized to view that secret information is escorted in, everyone working in the office has to be alerted. Close those files. Clear those computer screens. Turn those papers over. Be careful what you say.
The investigators working there have access to all the latest anti-terrorism intelligence, and it has to be pored over every day to try to make sure no one blows up a crowded resort on the Strip, gets into nuclear supplies at the Nevada Test Site or tries to set in motion any of the other myriad scenarios that Swanson’s team is charged with guarding against.
“Nobody ever wants to be wrong,” Swanson said. “Nobody ever wants to miss something that they shouldn’t have missed.”
“I sort of see our mission as defend everywhere, every second of the day, against every threat,” he said. “We have everything that we can think of in place to maximize our opportunities to get that piece of information that might allow us to prevent something very bad from happening here or elsewhere.
“Is it the kind of thing that keeps you up at night? Yep.”
Las Vegas — with its massive tourist population, constant flights in and out from all over the world, free flow of cash, and status as the nation’s capital of hedonism — is prone to potential terrorist activity, authorities have long warned.
“It’s very easy to get in and out of here, and it’s very easy to blend in when you get here,” Swanson said.
If an act of terrorism were to occur anywhere in Nevada, Swanson’s FBI-run task force — which includes representatives from 20 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies — would take the lead in investigating the crime. The task force shares intelligence with the Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center, a multijurisdiction agency led by Metro Police.
Authorities have not uncovered any major threats to Las Vegas so far, but the city remains high on the list of potential terrorist targets, Swanson said.
“There is some significant activity here,” he said. “There are people who may be sympathetic to Islamic extremism.”
Most of the activity in the valley involves fundraising and recruiting for extremist groups, Swanson said.
His team hasn’t had to file any terrorism cases with the court system, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been busy. Most of the time, he said, cases with terrorism overtones are handled in other ways, such as through deportation or more run-of-the-mill criminal charges.
Swanson, 47, spent 11 1/2 years as an Army infantry officer before joining the FBI 13 years ago. He worked counterterrorism cases for the FBI in Washington from 2003 to 2005 before coming to Las Vegas to take charge of the FBI’s organized crime squad here.
He began his assignment with the Joint Terrorism Task Force in October after spending time on the front lines of the war on terrorism. He learned firsthand how Islamic extremist groups operate during a 3 1/2-month stint as the FBI’s on-scene commander for counterterrorism in Iraq.
“I have a little bit of an appreciation for other aspects of the war on terror that I didn’t know before,” he said.
From July 1 through Oct. 7, Swanson lived in a dorm in the heart of Baghdad’s heavily fortified — and often under fire — Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy complex.
Always armed with a handgun and an M4 semiautomatic rifle, and always wearing a protective flak jacket, Swanson spent 16 hours a day overseeing 78 federal agents and analysts assigned to counterterrorism in Iraq.
He traveled across the country investigating kidnappings of American citizens and soldiers and helping the Iraqi government put together criminal terrorism cases.
He had arrived shortly after the U.S. troop surge began. In his last month on the job, the attacks on and around the Green Zone had nearly stopped, but “in the first half of my rotation, (Baghdad) was a very dangerous place,” Swanson said. “People were dying all the time.”
Swanson was on his way to the U.S. Embassy one morning when an insurgent’s rocket landed about 75 yards away, killing a security officer.
“It was a little unnerving,” he said.
Jeff German is the Sun’s senior investigative reporter.