Special Reports

Security gains urgency: Prevent a 'next time'

Glenn Weller runs Pierce County Security Patrol, a kind of barometer of fear and apprehension among local businesses that might hire a guard or two to keep an eye on the place.

When Los Angeles was aflame over the Rodney King verdicts, Weller's phone wouldn't stop ringing. Same thing when protesters were fighting in the streets at the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle.

He got a lot of calls after Sept. 11, 2001, too.

"It did create additional work right after the incident," said Weller, the Tacoma company's operations manager. "But a lot of that has leveled off since then. ... It's not on the forefront of people's minds."

For sure, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon changed people's attitudes about security. We welcomed armed soldiers at the airport and put up with long lines to get through the metal detectors. It didn't feel like such a hassle to let workers search our backpacks on the way into the ballpark.

A year afterward, ask people whether security is intruding in their daily lives more than it did before and many just shrug. Or they confess that maybe they're not paying as much attention as they were eight or 10 months ago.

In a poll early last month, three of four Americans said they hadn't made any changes in their lives to reduce their chances of becoming victims of terrorism.

That people appear to be accepting the larger role of security is evidence of "the hardening of our society to recognize we're living in a fundamentally different era than we were even 10 years ago, and that that's a permanent change in the way we're going to live," said Maj. Gen. Tim Lowenberg, head of the Washington National Guard and the state's top emergency management official.

"It does, to some degree, we hope, deter and dissuade those who are planning to take hostile actions against us," he said.

Utilities take note

The new attention to security definitely has taken hold among those who run water systems, electrical power, communications networks, oil and gas pipelines, highways and other pieces of America's "critical infrastructure" - one of many new phrases, like "homeland security," to enter the mainstream vernacular since Sept. 11.

A cottage industry has sprung up as public utilities and companies spend millions to assess their vulnerability to attack.

"I've received calls from 10 different consultants wanting to do this assessment for us," said Al Medak, water quality manager at Tacoma Water. "That never happened before 9-11."

He and Dave Sherman, the water supply manager, are conducting their own study in house with a $115,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

They never figured international terrorism would be something they'd have to worry about in keeping water flowing to the utility's 200,000 customers. They and their predecessors - Sherman's grandfather was a watershed inspector - have protected the system against contamination for 90 years.

"We used to go out of our way to offer tours of our facilities. We were happy for the attention," Sherman said. "But not anymore."

They used to think their biggest threat was a bunch of beered-up teenagers partying somewhere in the 230-square-mile watershed.

Now, they say they've also got to think like a terrorist to figure out where the system is most vulnerable to catastrophic attack.

They said terrorists have struck water systems in Italy and Colombia. Some Israeli utility managers they met told them they keep aquariums in sheds along their pipelines, in which the fish play the role of canary in a coal mine.

Experts have been urging more stringent security planning for years, said Gary Garnant, a former CIA target analyst who is the public information officer at the Grant County Public Utility District in Moses Lake.

Many officials began to understand the potential for catastrophe when they had to ensure their computer systems would survive the arrival of Y2K. The Sept. 11 attacks sealed the deal, he said.

"Utilities used to only think of themselves in relation with their customers, but now they realize they're a critical piece in society," Garnant said. "They're right at the heart of things."

Improving communication

Lowenberg wears two hats as adjutant general of the National Guard and Washington's emergency management boss. It's his job to prepare the state for a terrorist attack.

Virtually all of the security initiatives coming out of the state and federal governments cross his desk.

For example, there's the Homeland Security Advisory System. That's the federal government's plan to use five-color codes to warn the public about terrorist threats - red means there's a "severe risk of terrorist attack," green means low risk.

How might such a warning actually protect anyone?

Say the FBI develops credible information that terrorists are about to detonate a truck bomb somewhere in downtown Seattle. That'd be a red, for sure.

It's Lowenberg's job to see that there's a plan in place for what the government would do next.

What do officials tell the public, and when and how? What about downtown employers? What should they tell their workers? Should they send everyone home? What would that do to the transportation system. How to keep people from panicking?

"Obviously, all these details have to be worked out," Lowenberg said, "but there has to be contingency planning that's synchronized and coordinated across a broad spectrum of activities instead of 'Here's a threat advisory. You decide on your own how to react.' "

Such a system assumes federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies share information with each other, not to mention with their state and local counterparts.

Officials from all sides of that relationship acknowledge that was one area in greatest need of improvement in the wake of Sept. 11.

"There's been an improvement, but it's not an absolutely accomplished improvement yet," said Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, whose deputies, along with area firefighters, most likely would be among the first to respond to a local attack.

A question of balance

All the planning and preparing is important because it will help people keep their heads if there's another catastrophe, officials said. In a panic, people overreact.

"One of the first costs to be paid for lack of preparedness is going to be a willingness to temporarily concede civil liberties," Lowenberg said.

Many believe the push for greater security already has come at too great a cost. In an Associated Press poll early last month, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they were very or somewhat concerned that new anti-terrorism measures could restrict their individual freedoms.

The American Civil Liberties Union and others are campaigning against many of the Bush administration's homeland security efforts, as well as provisions in the sweeping USA Patriot Act that Congress passed and the president signed into law seven weeks after the attacks.

"Certainly there is very strong support from the American public in taking strong action to deal with the threat of terror," said Doug Honig of the ACLU of Washington. "At the same time, people want actions to be fair and effective."

Authorities in Washington have backed off security measures in some cases where people objected that they went too far:

•The state House passed an anti-terrorism bill that would allow police to wiretap telephone conversations without a judge's consent. The Senate killed the measure.

•The Washington State Patrol in June stopped conducting random vehicle searches aboard passenger ferries after protests by the ACLU, passengers and some lawmakers.

Honig and others said increased security doesn't have to come at the cost of diminished freedom.

For example, airline security analysts say the two best new defenses against hijackers are hardened cockpit doors and the realization that passengers can and will fight back.

"It's a balance between rights and safety," said Pastor, the Pierce County sheriff. "There are two extremes. People would say, 'The heck with rights while we're getting this war fought,' and there are people who say, 'No, in the country with the greatest number of rights and personal freedom in the world, we can't give even a millimeter of that to be safe.'

"Both sides are probably wrong," he said. "It's a question of balance."

Are we any safer?

The question is whether all the additional security has made people safer.

Weller, the security manager, said it's become standard practice these days for companies to hire screeners to check bags and people at any event that draws a crowd.

"We never had that before 9-11," he said. "It's more accepted as the norm now to have your bags checked. You just get in line and go along with the program. Most people realize that it's going to provide for everyone's safety."

Airport security efforts since the attacks created their own post-Sept. 11 archetype - the overzealous and under-common-sensed security screener. They're the ones who made a mothers drink her own breast milk, and publicly inspected a sex toy as a couple on their way home from Las Vegas stood by in embarrassment.

Those excesses seem to have died down, though, as the new Transportation Security Administration gradually comes to life at airports around the country. At Sea-Tac Airport, the federal agency most likely will take over passenger screening this month, said Bob Blunk, who heads the TSA at the airport.

As for screening all baggage, "the Aviation Security Act requires us to be doing it by the end of this calendar year ... and we're going to do all we can to get as close as we can to doing that," Blunk said.

The Canadian border is another story.

Members of Congress from northern states wanted to augment the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Customs Service and Border Patrol agents with National Guardsmen, but the Pentagon didn't want the mission.

State Guard commanders were willing to take on the work, but the Pentagon insisted they be under federal, not state, control - a distinction that made paying, training and deploying the soldiers infinitely more complicated, said Lowenberg, the Washington Guard boss.

"It took us five days to get soldiers and airmen to 422 airports throughout the nation," he said. "It took us seven months to get far fewer soldiers to a few border crossings."

After a few months, the Guardsmen have all returned home. Meantime, the number of INS, Customs and Border Patrol agents at the border is virtually the same as it was last fall. Officials said the agencies are hiring, but it takes a year or so before a new employee is trained and ready to work, and at that, they're all being sent to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The agencies also are losing experienced employees who are jumping for higher-paying jobs at the new Transportation Security Administration, officials said.

So are we safer?

Polls show Americans' confidence in the government's ability to prevent a terrorist attack on the country is about the same now as it was in the mid-1990s.

In a July ABC News/Washington Post survey, 46 percent said they had a great deal or good amount of confidence, while 45 percent said they had only a fair amount of confidence, and 9 percent said they had none. In several polls after Sept. 11, the combined share of people answering "great deal" and "good amount" was between 52 and 63 percent, with the "fair amount" answer falling to the low 30s.

The ACLU's Honig said Americans are much more security conscious than before the attacks. "I don't know if I'd say safer, but there's definitely a focus on things that will make us safer," he said.

Sheriff Pastor said Sept. 11 made people realize there was more to being a citizen than getting the most government services for your taxpayer buck. Many people are more inclined to pay attention to the issues and participate in the government, he said, and that recognition, if it lasts, ultimately will make Americans safer.

"Maybe the best thing we can do to resist terrorism," he said, "is to recognize we have responsibilities as citizens, not just entitlements as citizens."

Michael Gilbert: 253-597-8921



TODAY: Accepting the burden of increased precautions to gain a sense of safety.

TUESDAY: Final installment of Closer to Home series finds major turns in the lives of five local households.

WEDNESDAY: Looking back at the day that tore into the heart of a nation.

THURSDAY: From ground zero to the South Sound, America remembers.