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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Local Chiefs Want U.S. to Tell More on Safety Plans

November 23, 2001|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — State and local authorities nationwide are complaining, with mounting frustration, that the federal government is leaving them out of the loop in the drive to secure the homeland.

This is a time of intense planning, of drawing up strategies to prevent or respond to terrorist attacks. Yet from governors to county emergency directors to city police chiefs, those in charge of keeping citizens safe say they do not have the information they need to do the job right.

They don't know what they don't know. But they suspect they need to know more.

"The best advice [about protecting citizens] is based on your intelligence, Uncle Sam," Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating said. But that intelligence, he warned, "is only as good as how much of it is shared locally."

Added Tim Daniel, Missouri's director of homeland security: "We need to know what the strategy is. And we need to know it before the last minute."

This gripe is by no means universal: Some local authorities have expressed delight with the cooperation they have been getting. The Los Angeles Police Department, for one, has praised the FBI for its help in dealing with terrorist threats.

Those raising an alarm, however, complain that the FBI has refused to tell local detectives about suspicious characters in their communities. They grumble that they havehad to hear about investigations in their jurisdictions from the media.

Such conflict spilled out into the open this week, when the acting police chief in Portland, Ore., refused to help the FBI interview Middle Eastern immigrants, saying state law prohibited questioning of anyone not suspected of a crime.

As the cost of stepped-up security mounts, some local authorities complain they have not received adequate guidance about which potential targets truly need protection and which potential threats are most plausible. They worry that they are not being told the nation's strategies for handling a bioterrorist attack.

"There are a lot of protocols [for sharing information] on paper, but the actual communication we have to improve," said Missouri Gov. Bob Holden, who met recently with homeland security director Thomas J. Ridge to press that point.

Keating was less diplomatic: "I was stunned and amazed at the patronizing, if not contemptuous, attitude of the federal government toward state and local officials" during a top-level emergency drill last summer that simulated a smallpox attack in the Midwest. That attitude, he said, has not improved since Sept. 11.

The information "we ought to know to protect ourselves," Keating said, is not always forthcoming from the federal government.

For instance, the governor met recently with the Air Force general who directs the Oklahoma National Guard to assess security threats in his state. "He said, 'Governor, I think things are fine, but I can't tell you why because you don't have security clearance,' " Keating said. "That is a very real problem. . . . It's not hard [to fix]. It just needs to be done--last week."

FBI Director Robert Mueller has heard such complaints loud and clear. So has Ridge, who has met with at least half a dozen governors and talked to several more by phone. Both men have acknowledged what Ridge's spokeswoman called "gaps in communication," and both say they are moving swiftly to make improvements.

Last week, Mueller convened an advisory group of state and local law enforcement to discuss intelligence sharing. Addressing the group's top concern, Mueller promised to speed up security clearances for local officials. He also pledged to set up more joint terrorism task forces. And he invited the group to send two representatives to the FBI's strategic war room, where 250 analysts review tips around the clock.

"We're not at war with state and local police. We're at war with terrorists and criminals," FBI spokesman Jim Vance said. "There are certainly enough bad guys to go around."

Although the FBI guards its sources and techniques, Vance said, very little else is kept hush-hush: "One of the great misconceptions out there is that the FBI has this vast, vast wealth of information we're holding on to."

In practice, the amount of intelligence sharing seems to vary from region to region, often depending on the personal relationships that develop between FBI agents in the field and local law enforcement.

In Arizona, "we have an absolutely wonderful relationship with the FBI, and that's only improved since Sept. 11," said Cmdr. Jeff Resler of the Department of Public Safety. "They don't hold anything back."

Maine Police Chief Says FBI Told Him Nothing

But that has not been the experience of Police Chief Michael Chitwood in Portland, Maine.

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