Task forces on front lines in fighting terrorism

State, local agencies join FBI in investigating tips

April 23, 2003|By Richard B. Schmitt and Greg Krikorian | Richard B. Schmitt and Greg Krikorian,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - In an office with a view of the Capitol dome, Jim Rice pulls a thick binder from a shelf.

"This is my war book," he says.

Inside is a chart showing how to safely detonate a car bomb. Turn the page and there's a list of symptoms from exposure to nerve agents.

There are after-hours phone numbers for immigration authorities, translators and canine handlers.

Rice sniffs out terrorist threats. An FBI special agent, he helps lead a law enforcement team that is Washington's main line of defense against terrorism. Every day, it runs down dozens of leads, foot soldiers in the homeland security effort.

In much the way it has fought illegal drugs, the FBI is looking to task forces of federal, state and local agents to help combat terrorism. In this costly and painstaking battle, it's tough figuring out whether the enemy is being gained on.

Streaming into the command center here in recent weeks have been tips about a Middle Eastern man sketching a picture of the Fairfax County jail in Northern Virginia and about a tenant whose apartment is furnished with a mattress and a telescope aimed at one of the monuments.

Lately, there have been 15 to 20 reported sightings each day of a Saudi who recently made the FBI's "Be on the Lookout" list. One caller thinks the suspect is his barber.

Few of the leads pan out. But they are all meticulously investigated.

"In this city, everything is a terrorist act until we prove it is not," Rice said.

The squad is part of a post-Sept. 11 experiment known as the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The FBI has formed similar ventures in every region of the country.

The idea is to put representatives of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in the same office, with orders to share intelligence and cooperate. It sounds easy, though local police departments and their federal colleagues have not always been the best of friends.

The hope is that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which some critics attribute to a breakdown in communications between law enforcement agencies, are changing attitudes.

More than half of the 66 task forces have been formed since Sept. 11. New York has had a task force since 1980, and Los Angeles has had one since the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Every day, they field calls, examine information, check with sources and dispatch help. A task force covering Nebraska and Iowa helped solve a case last year in which a college student had planted pipe bombs in mailboxes across five states.

Another's yearlong investigation led to the indictment this spring of a University of Idaho graduate student who is charged with raising money for an Islamic charity that advocates terrorism.

Even when the squads don't make arrests, the new cooperation goes a long way toward quickly investigating potential threats.

Days after the invasion of Iraq, a police officer spotted someone at Los Angeles International Airport who seemed to match the description of a long-sought terrorist.

Before moving toward an immediate arrest, the officer contacted a command post where FBI agents huddled with counterterrorism analysts and, after reviewing classified intelligence reports, determined that there was no need to make an arrest.

"In normal cases, that process could have taken hours. In this case, it took a matter of minutes," said Anna Winningham, FBI supervisory special agent in Los Angeles.

In New York, an anti-terror unit responded with helicopters and bomb squads last month when a morning jogger spotted three men scaling a steel tower of the Williamsburg Bridge, which links Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The incident turned out to be a drunken prank.

"I've been doing this a long time, and there was a time when nobody would communicate with each other," said Denis Flood, a Defense Intelligence Agency counterterrorism officer attached to the command post in Los Angeles, where 120 agents, officers, analysts and other specialists work.

"Now, we are all sitting in the same room and talking to each other," he said. "I never thought I would see that in my lifetime."

Flood begins his workday by tapping into a Defense Department computer for classified data that might affect Los Angeles. He passes that information to the local task force and checks with his defense sources on information that the task force gives him.

Information collected on the streets of Los Angeles is transmitted to the Pentagon command center in Qatar instantaneously.

"It goes from Los Angeles to Doha in a matter of seconds," Flood he said.

How much terrorism all this effort prevents is unclear. According to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, more than 100 terrorist plots worldwide have been foiled since Sept. 11. But that includes cases principally handled by agents overseas and their foreign counterparts, where the task forces played little or no role.

But FBI officials say they are doing what the public demands.

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