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In L.A., `You Can't Protect Everything'

The region is safer today, but new security measures might not be enough.

September 11, 2006|Greg Krikorian;Jean Guccione;Jennifer Oldham;Deborah Schoch;Stuart Pfeifer and Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Five years ago, Los Angeles awoke to the horrifying images of foreign terrorists killing thousands of people in a coordinated attack.

Today, with tens of millions of dollars in new security measures in place throughout this region, few counter-terrorism experts would dispute that the nation's second-biggest city and most populated county are better prepared than ever to combat the sort of destruction that hit New York and the Washington, D.C., area.

But better might not be enough.

Bioterrorism attacks. Suicide bombings. Even an assault on a commercial jetliner using a shoulder-fired missile. All have been analyzed by counter-terrorism officials, often in tabletop exercises or computer simulations that inevitably raise new questions and concerns about whether such attacks might occur.

And where.

Experts note that few places in the world can compete with Los Angeles for potential targets, both substantial and symbolic. Beyond the ports and airports, there are oil refineries and power plants, sports stadiums and skyscrapers, movie studios and amusement parks. And apart from the potential year-round targets, there are the annual events like the Academy Awards and the Rose Parade that draw huge crowds and a worldwide television audience.

"I don't want to be an alarmist, but I think the scheme of threats out there is now of a proportion that we have not even begun to fathom," said Erroll Southers, former deputy director of the California Office of Homeland Security.

"We have to start thinking about the unimaginable because before Sept. 11, who would have thought that several thousand Americans could be killed in one day by an attack less than a nuclear explosion," said Southers, now associate director of the Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events at USC.

The key to preventing such attacks, according to terrorism expert Lt. John Sullivan of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, "is always understanding how a vulnerability translates to a threat."

"You can't protect everything all the time because if you try, you protect nothing," said Sullivan, who 10 years ago helped launch a local multi-agency Terrorism Early Warning Center that has since been replicated in 26 cities nationwide.

In recent weeks, the nation's first Joint Regional Intelligence Center opened in Norwalk with a goal of coordinating anti-terrorism efforts among more than 200 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

At the FBI, more resources have been poured into information gathering and sharing that information quickly with other federal, state and local agencies.

Before Sept. 11, the Los Angeles FBI office, responsible for a seven-county region, had one Joint Terrorism Task Force. Today, it has four to blanket the region, which has a population of 18 million.

Steve Tidwell, who heads the local FBI division, sees the FBI as "one link in the chain, now national and global, that has been formed since 9/11" to fight terrorism through a combined effort of law enforcement, public health agencies, emergency services and the private sector.

"There is an urgency among agents and task force officers that comes with being as vigilant as they need to be ... to protect the citizens of Los Angeles," Tidwell said.

By anyone's account, it is a daunting goal. It is also one that Los Angeles was pursuing long before 2001.

"Before 9/11, Los Angeles was probably better prepared than the average city," said Jack Riley, Rand Corp. homeland security expert.

The failed millennium plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve 1999. The existence of the county's terrorism analysis center. Even the region's experience with regional disasters. These made Los Angeles more aware of the possibility of terrorism and what to do if it occurs, he said.

And more recently, Riley said, he has been impressed with Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton's commitment to improving counter-terrorism efforts with more analysts and equipment.

"He really gets it," Riley said. "He is not just doing it to collect toys."

In the end, experts agree, all the planning and monitoring in the world may be unable to prevent acts of terrorism.

"We know there are vulnerable nodes: the transit system, the airports, the seaport, other parts of the manufacturing and industrial sector," said the Sheriff's Department's Sullivan. But knowing potential targets is only one part of the puzzle, he said. The bigger piece is knowing what terrorists are after at a given moment.

"Al Qaeda might have a long-term objective to change U.S. policy or attack its economy. But because of world events or internal dynamics, they may shift from one target to another," he said.

"So you must have as much current intelligence as possible about their capabilities and intent. Otherwise you can find yourself protecting against the last attack when the real threat is something else."




A region of potential danger


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