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Job of Protecting N.Y. Falls to 'Can-Do Guy'

Safety: Ex-FBI official Kallstrom directs an effort to guard against attacks. His colleagues say he's up to the task.

April 07, 2002|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — From his corner office in Manhattan, James Kallstrom can see the Chrysler Building with its gleaming steel spire and a thicket of other skyscrapers. The vista is a daily reminder of the task he faces.

Kallstrom's job description is starkly simple: Protect the almost 19 million people of New York state from another terrorist attack.

Appointed after Sept. 11 by Gov. George Pataki as the state's director of public security, the former FBI assistant director is responsible for finding weaknesses in current plans and forming fresh strategies to guard against threats to bridges, tunnels, nuclear plants, the New York Stock Exchange, the Statue of Liberty, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Empire State Building and other skyscrapers.

Those are just the obvious targets. Kallstrom worries about all sorts of possibilities, such as the safety of the state's milk supply.

Add to the mix trying to ensure 75,000 police officers have better equipment, training and relevant information from the federal government and the job is mind-boggling in its complexity.

"Between here and Washington, D.C., you are probably talking about 90% of the targets," Kallstrom said.

Former FBI colleagues say the job is tailor-made for Kallstrom. "He thrives on emergency situations," said an agent who worked with him on big cases. "He loves being in the game, being in the fight."

More than six months after the attack on the World Trade Center, some important security steps have been taken. But much remains to be done, and Kallstrom's sense of urgency is punctuated by his belief that the clock could be ticking down to further attacks.

"I think most people don't realize we are at the beginning of this thing. They think we are halfway through it or it is almost over," he said, pausing in his office for an interview.

"We're talking about people I think who obviously are obsessed with weapons of mass destruction, are obsessed, I think, with killing a large population and having a very negative impact on our economy and would like to do both of these things simultaneously.

"They are capable of doing it," Kallstrom said.

Under his direction, the Office of Public Security has undertaken various countermeasures:

* Set up the nation's first anti-terrorism communication network linking all of New York's 345 law enforcement agencies. The encrypted computer system quickly separates critical intelligence from routine criminal data and is anchored in the philosophy that officers on the streets can identify abnormal situations and, if furnished proper data, can help fight terrorism.

* Increased protection at the Indian Point Nuclear Plant in Westchester County, 45 miles northeast of New York City. In a pilot program that could be replicated at the state's five other nuclear plants, the Office of Public Security, the FBI, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Entergy Corp., the owner of Indian Point, assessed the plant's procedures in case of an attack, and the FBI has offered to train its guards.

* Surveyed the vast state government operations. It also focused on personnel who would first respond to an attack. It found serious shortages of protective gear and other equipment, including technology to quickly identify chemicals that terrorists might use.

* Inventoried every potential target in the state that could cause grave harm to people and the economy. This has been coupled with trying to predict terrorist scenarios and plan appropriate measures. It is a massive undertaking assessing such targets as the power grid, the water supply, airports, harbors and critical data networks.

Some initiatives are less public for fear of tipping off terrorists.

"We are using a lot of new technology that probably isn't obvious," Kallstrom said, declining to elaborate. "Our whole philosophy is to make it as hard as possible to get to targets."

When the two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, Kallstrom was in his office at MBNA Corp. in Wilmington, Del., where he made a successful transition into banking after retiring from the FBI in 1997.

The World Trade Center was familiar territory. During his 28-year career with the bureau, including heading its New York field office, Kallstrom investigated the 1993 terrorist bombing of the complex.

"I was shocked about the tragedy and how it happened," he said of the second attack. "But I wasn't the least bit surprised. I knew immediately what it was."

Fast-forward to a sunny Saturday several weeks after Sept. 11. Kallstrom was half asleep on his couch watching a football game when the phone rang. It was Pataki, and the governor's message was clear: "I really need you."

Pataki already had cleared the move with Kallstrom's employer, MBNA Chairman Alfred Lerner, who, in an act of patriotism, pledged to pay Kallstrom's salary.

In picking Kallstrom, the governor got an executive with broad skills supervising large projects, and roots in New York and Washington's law enforcement communities.

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