Preparing for al Qaeda

Law enforcement agencies ready for a local nightmare: potential terrorist attacks on the Port of New Orleans and the Mississippi River.



Inside No. 1 Third Street Wharf -- the headquarters of the Harbor Police Department (HPD) -- the question hangs in the chief's office like a funeral pall: what if, despite the best efforts of law enforcement, suicidal terrorists detonate a nuclear bomb smuggled into the Port of New Orleans?

Robert Hecker, 56, a 35-year police veteran, leans forward on his desk and pauses. He has directed the 60-officer state agency since 1995, the year he retired as a captain and 28-year veteran of the New Orleans Police Department. His NOPD peers gave him a retirement party and said they envied his rise from the city streets to a "cush" command of the waterfront.

That was before 9/11, of course. Hecker glances to a window on his right. A cargo ship steams quietly down the Mississippi River toward the city's revitalized cruise ship terminals -- a locus of local law enforcement anxiety over terrorism. On the office wall behind Hecker are two post-9/11 photographs taken at Port of New Orleans functions. In one, the chief shakes hands with President George W. Bush; the other shows Hecker next to Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge.

"Well," Hecker says solemnly, "in that case, our whole department would be gone."

Hecker then invites Officer Glenn J. Smith, 26, a four-year harbor cop, into the discussion. A member of the harbor's three-member anti-terrorism division and the son of a local port chaplain, Smith was one of the first peace officers in Louisiana to attend a law enforcement seminar on weapons of mass destruction after 9/11. He has attended four classes since then. After a nuclear blast, Smith says, "the main thing is maintaining distance [from fallout]."

"Our officers will need to think about their own lives, too," Hecker says.

A nuclear threat is not the only fear, Smith continues. In the chaotic aftermath of an attack, first-responders might instead confront chemical or biological weapons agents.

Time is tight, money is short. With war looming in Iraq, the threat of terrorism feels closer. On Oct. 24, the FBI issued a national terrorist threat warning of special interest to the port. The agency cited a recent attack on a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen and information from al Qaeda detainees. "[Al Qaeda plans to] weaken the petroleum industry by conducting sea-based attacks against large oil-tankers [that] may be part of more extensive operations against port facilities ... oil facilities and nuclear power plants," warned the FBI.

A number of national security reports also have sounded the alarm for the 301 ports-of-entry in the United States. The most publicized is the "Hart-Rudman" report, which in September 1999 predicted a catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil. According to a follow-up report by the panel, co-chaired by retired U.S. Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, much work lies ahead for the nation's seaports: "While 50,000 federal screeners are being hired by the nation's airports to check passengers, only the tiniest percentage of containers, ships, trucks and trains that enter the United States each day are subject to examination, and a weapon of mass destruction could well be hidden among the cargo."

In an August congressional report titled "Terrorist Nuclear Attacks on Seaports," defense expert Jonathan Medalia describes such an attack as a "low-probability but high-consequence" threat: "If terrorists smuggled a Hiroshima-sized bomb into a port and set it off, the attacks would destroy buildings out to a mile or two, start fires, [and] especially in a port that handled petroleum and chemicals spread fallout over many square miles; and disrupt commerce. It could kill many thousands of people."

For local law enforcement, the question is stark: is New Orleans prepared for al Qaeda on the port and the river?

"Here in New Orleans, homeland security and port security are indivisible," says local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.

In the event of a terrorist attack, Letten, also a 49-year-old commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve intelligence division, would be in charge of a federalized communications network in southeast Louisiana. "Port security is of absolute, paramount importance in this district," he says. "Obviously, the port complex in the Eastern District comprises the Port of New Orleans, the petrochemical corridor and the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, all of which are of strategic, military and economic value to the United States.

"Southeast Louisiana is a very target-rich environment that requires an enormous amount of vigilance to keep free of potential terrorists. We need to minimize, if not eliminate, ship jumping by foreigners who could very well pose a threat to national security. ... And the vulnerability of shipping is certainly no secret."

Letten, who refers to the president as "my commander-in-chief," commands the federal Anti-Terrorism Task Force (ATTF) for the federal Eastern District of Louisiana, a 13-parish network of 115 individuals from 62 governmental agencies ranging from the Nuclear Regulatory Agency to your local sheriff's office. Two other U.S. attorneys in Louisiana, one in the Middle District (Baton Rouge) and the other in the Western District (Lafayette), command ATTFs in their federal court jurisdictions. "We all regularly disseminate threat information for official use only as we receive it from the FBI ... by email or fax so that there is no gap in information out there," Letten says.

The two biggest players in terms of port security in southeast Louisiana are local FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard, Letten says. "If you're talking about physical port security, I can't imagine a bigger player than the Coast Guard. If you double the size of the Louisiana Purchase, you have the Eighth District command of the United States Coast Guard and they are headquartered here in my building."

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander James Duckworth stands on the back deck of a 41-foot Coast Guard utility boat docked at the Canal Street ferry landing, the reflection of the river captured in his sunglasses. "Most people don't know what goes on between the levee tops," he says.

In January, Duckworth, 46, will celebrate 20 years in the nation's smallest armed service. In fact, he's back in uniform for the largest build-up of the Coast Guard since World War II -- a $17 billion federal program to upgrade the fleet that will benefit metro area shipyards. A former marine safety inspector for the Coast Guard river district -- a 250-mile stretch from Baton Rouge to the mouth of the Mississippi -- Duckworth was working at the family business in Metairie on Sept. 11, 2001.

"I was selling tires," he recalls. "The phone rang two days later."

Reactivated, he now rides up the river with a crew of subordinate "Coasties," most of whom are half his age. "I spent most of my career conducting vessel inspections in the river, so it made sense to keep me here," he says.

How does the Coast Guard protect the port against terrorists? "The river is a huge and complicated place but everyone talks," he says, confidently. "Mariners talk, shipping agents talk, pilots talk."

Since 9/11, he says, all the major stakeholders have been working together, including the shipping companies, the stevedoring companies and the four river pilot associations. The Coast Guard is more closely tied with other federal agencies than ever before, he says.

Take, for example, the Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS). "I got a call last night from an INS agent who got a call from another INS agent in a foreign port. We now have a vessel being boarded in the Gulf to look for stowaways as we speak." Citing security reasons, he declined to elaborate.

Some 6,000 vessels pass through the port of New Orleans each year -- not including hundreds of unchecked barges, officials say. Effective 9/11, any ship 300 tons or over is required to provide 96-hour notice before attempting to enter the mouth of the river. "We look for suspicious individuals and circumstances, such as duplicative crew," Duckworth says. "For example, 'Why so many electricians?'" The Coasties also ensure the vessel's paperwork is in order as well as the crew's personal documents.

Checking for terrorists has been added to a list of duties along with marine safety, drug interdiction and pollution control. "The misconception is that this is something new for us," Petty Officer Chad Saylor says of homeland security in the port.

How does terrorism rank among other Coast Guard priorities? "Our number one priority is the safety of life at sea; but it's neck and neck with port security," Duckworth says.

The sea marshal program, underway since November 2001, requires two Coasties on certain foreign ships entering the river. "We want to make sure that ship makes its destination," Duckworth says. He rattles off a rapid-fire punch list of sample questions for a foreign crew: "'Who is the suspicious person in the engine room?' 'The pilot said 20-degree right rudder, Captain. Why hasn't your helmsman made that change?'" Coast Guard vehicles also patrol river roads between Baton Rouge and Venice, just above the river delta, he adds.

For a moment, no one talks. The boat hums up the river. The sun spills on the back deck. "Fighting complacency is my biggest challenge," Duckworth says. "It's been days, weeks and months now since anything has happened."

The Coast Guard has a "riverwatch" program for New Orleans, a waterborne version of a neighborhood watch. And like the harbor cops, the Coasties are trained in identifying weapons of mass destruction -- with the help of the Louisiana National Guard, which also provides weekend security patrols of the cruise ship terminals.

The utility boat passes a 900-foot military support vessel docked on the West Bank. The commander recites more hypothetical questions: "'Why is that small boat up on the levee?' ... 'Who is that man signaling to a vessel?' Jet skis, canoes and rafts: it's all in the river. Everything has to be looked at."

There is a palpable sense of pride among New Orleans natives enrolled in wartime port security. In fact, Duckworth recalls that as a junior at De La Salle High School, he was "initiated" by U.S. Attorney Letten, then a senior at the Uptown all-boys school. "I'll never forgive him for it," Duckworth deadpans, recalling his youthful hazing. "But it doesn't mean we can't work together. We both take this job personally."

At a downtown office building, Coast Guard Lt. Cdr. Chris Hogan, 40, steps inside a busy room filled with computers and Coasties. A large board lists vessels "restricted" from sailing in the river due to deficiencies of crew or equipment, among other factors.

"At any one time, we have 10 vessels restricted for navigational problems [between Baton Rouge and the river's mouth]," Hogan says. Since 9/11, he adds, "our overall workload has doubled."

The Coast Guard has made several hundred boardings outside the 12-mile limit of U.S waters. "We send an armed boarding team aboard inbound vessels for a licensing check, vessel documentation and verification of the crew passports and visas," he says. An additional several hundred vessels have received escorts, including cruise ships.

What of the remaining 5,000 ships that enter the river each year? Boarding teams apply to vessels within a certain "risk matrix," Hogan says. "It's trickier for us to board a vessel outside the 12-mile limit pending inspection," Hogan says. Citing security concerns, he declines to elaborate on the criteria.

Says Duckworth: "We have a lot of eyes and ears on the river."

The Coast Guard also shares information with a national database maintained by the FBI and CIA. "Bad stuff about foreigners, basically," Hogan says. A marine safety team trained in preventing small boat assaults and suicide attacks is based in Houston and can report to New Orleans on 12 hours notice. To commemorate the attacks, the team's four patrol boats bear the precedent number of "911."

On Dec. 13, 2000, Petty Officer Kyle Niemi, 21, saw firsthand a symbol of the war on terrorism. As a New Orleans-based photographer for the Coast Guard, he shot pictures of the USS Cole leaving a Pascagoula, Miss., shipyard after repairs. The Cole had a 40-by-60 foot hole in its side caused by a suicidal terrorist attack off the coast of Yemen in October 2000. Seventeen sailors were killed.

Coast guard vessels created a floating security zone around the ship as it sailed past flag-waving civilians on the shore, on route to its home port in Norfolk, Va.

"It was good to see the ship patched up," Niemi says firmly.

For reasons best known to him, Kenneth W. Kaiser, the new Special Agent in Charge of the FBI field office in New Orleans, winces at Jim Letten's description of his job as "chair" of the JTTF for Louisiana.

"I oversee all the investigations for the FBI in Louisiana, so I don't think 'chair' is the right word," Kaiser, 45, a native of Evanston, Ill., and second-generation FBI field agent, says.

A 20-year agent and a SWAT team coordinator, Kaiser has worked in FBI offices here and abroad, handling violent crimes, organized crime, terrorism matters and diplomatic security. He coordinated FBI assistance for the Olympic Games in Barcelona and Atlanta, as well as the World Cup soccer championships in the United States. He moved to New Orleans with his family in August 2001.

Kaiser knows well that four of the nation's top 10 ports are in Louisiana; they are under his watch. He declined to say how many terrorist suspects have been detained in Louisiana since 9/11, but he cites some general concerns.

"With the oil and gas industry here, with the ports here, with the cruise ship industry now here, [a terrorist attack] could be very spectacular, potentially," he says. "We have a large amount of foreign flag vessels that come in and out of here every year. Those are some of the scenarios that peak our interest, plus all the special events: Mardi Gras, Sugar Bowl and Super Bowl."

Meanwhile, fallout from bureaucratic battles in Washington that have accompanied the nation's largest shuffling of federal agencies since World War II, ripple out toward the FBI's lakefront headquarters. Kaiser discounts reports that the FBI has failed to share critical intelligence with other agencies as not "too founded." Prior to 9/11, state and local access to FBI intelligence about terrorism -- "unless it was specific to their area" -- was restricted due to laws governing classified security information.

"Unfortunately, for a 'secret' or 'top secret' security clearance there is a lot of background work that has to be done," Kaiser says. "We can't get around that. That's the law." Since 9/11, he says, the bureau has conducted thousands of security clearances of people in law enforcement, to give them access to classified information.

Kaiser also dismisses reports of FBI discord with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). "We meet with the CIA very frequently," he says. "We offered them a place to work here, any time they want to come in the office. They have been over here several times. ... I don't see any problems in the interaction with CIA, both on the national level and the local level."

But at least one other local federal agency would like a larger role in local port security. "We are going to be looking for ways to get into the fight, as I understand it," says James Myles, a special agent for the Metairie-based office of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). "Right now, we are not directly involved. We will help out in any way we can, but we are going to stay in our area of responsibility."

In response, Kaiser says that the DEA may have an interest in "some of the terrorist groups in South America that are dealing in narcotics trafficking, but primarily DEA is not considered in the intelligence community." That may change, with the recent tapping of DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson for a top post in the new Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security.

Early last year, Kaiser predecessor Charles Mathews publicly complained that Louisiana led all 56 FBI field offices in public corruption indictments and convictions. Kaiser states unequivocally that public corruption will no longer be Public Enemy No. 1 for the Louisiana FBI.

"The number one priority now in the FBI throughout the country is terrorism or prevention of terrorism," he says. Subsequent priorities: "counter-intelligence or foreign counter-intelligence, cyber-crime and public corruption."

Todd Owen, area port director for the U.S. Customs Service, oversees inspections at five Louisiana ports, from New Orleans to Lake Charles. He says several post-9/11 changes will enhance port security:

· New regulations require cruise ships to provide Customs with passenger lists several days before arriving in port, allowing for more in-depth background checks.

· Since Dec. 2, all vessels carrying containers or cargo on pallets must provide Customs with a itemized list of all cargo 24 hours before it is even loaded in a foreign port.

· Customs has hired new inspectors, but will not disclose the numbers citing security concerns.

· Container ships are now inspected by Customs in foreign ports to deter the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction and terrorists.

· New Orleans is one of only 12 seaport cities to employ the VACIS, a mobile Customs X-ray van used to detect explosives, weapons and other contraband.

On Feb. 3, when New Orleans hosted Super Bowl XXXVI, Customs officials say they successfully employed the VACIS scanner for stadium security screening of incoming trucks. Late last year, unbeknown to Customs, the Secret Service concealed several dud hand grenades and a stinger missile in a truck. Alert local inspectors found the devices using the VACIS.

A key Customs concern now is the cruise line industry. "We always had concerns with cruise liners before 9/11," Owens says, citing drug smuggling as a primary worry. Now, he calls the floating tourism industry "a prime terrorist target."

There has not been a successful terrorist attack on a cruise liner since the bloody high-seas hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985, authorities say. But the concentration of people on a cruise ship troubles law enforcement. "The twin towers in New York lost 3,000 people in an attack by two hijacked planes," says Lt. Joseph Labarriere, commander of the HPD terrorism division. The Carnival line's new $500 million super-cruise liner Conquest is scheduled to dock weekly at the Julia Street Wharves near the Riverwalk. "That's 3,900 passengers and 1,600 crew," the lieutenant says, with a quiet gravity. Carnival officials did not return a call for comment by presstime.

The crew of the fireboat Gen. Roy S. Kelley, the HPD's lone vessel for patrolling 24 miles of river, readies for a "terrorism preparedness" inspection by State Police. Aboard the fireboat, harbor policeman Smith offers a visitor a seat. His tone is apologetic: "This is the only boat we have in the river. Our other boat got blown up two years ago." (Cops say a shrimper's teenage son poured gasoline on the hull of the moored HPD vessel and set it afire.)

The boat's engines rev up. It motors downriver, under the Crescent City Connection, to the Julia Street terminals near the Riverwalk shopping mall. The Kelley's duties include fire fighting, vessel escorts, security patrols and plucking dead bodies from the river. Today, Smith takes out a pair of binoculars. His eyes sweep through a forest of pilings under the docks. He is looking for any unauthorized watercraft or visitors.

The manhole covers that once led underneath the wharves were welded shut after 9/11, he says.

Chief Hecker says there have been other changes since the terrorist attacks. Citing security concerns, port officials are working to close public access to the cruise ship terminals and Uptown wharves, where an estimated 80 percent of port cargo business takes place. A 50-foot "security zone" is enforced on the docks for cars; on the river, vessels are barred from sailing within 100 feet of the wharves.

Hecker says he has prepared a security study at the Dock Board's request. "I noted $46 million in equipment, personnel and training that I consider necessary for being a satisfactorily secured port," he says. The list includes improved lighting, electronic gates, surveillance cameras for port access areas, a "swipe card" system linked to the National Criminal Information Center, two additional boats for the river, additional personnel and explosive detection equipment. Hecker hopes to have all of the port security needs funded and in place by early 2004.

Since 9/11, the HPD also has had an officer working fulltime on terrorism cases at the FBI's joint terrorism task force. "There's not a week that goes by that we don't get two to three faxes from Jim Letten's office," Hecker sighs.

Yet another concern are pleasure crafts, which enter the port from as far away as the Caribbean, sometimes without a working radio.

One problem the harbor police or its supervising Dock Board doesn't have is complacency, says Hecker with a smile. "We have a port director who started Sept. 10, 2001 -- he is very security conscious."

One of the sadder, uncounted casualties of homeland port security may be innocent ship jumpers. Destitute immigrants who stow away to make a better life in the United States will likely be greeted with a more hostile reception than before Sept. 11, 2001.

Officer Smith recalls a recent case of five ship jumpers from Turkey. Three drowned, two were caught. "They were looking for opportunities," Smith says. "They showed up here with nothing and just hoped that someone would help them -- and it's not that way anymore, since 9/11."

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Chad Saylor
  • U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Chad Saylor
New Orleans Harbor Chief of Police Robert Hecker with President George W. Bush in a post-9/11 photograph. - ROBERT HECKER
  • Robert Hecker
  • New Orleans Harbor Chief of Police Robert Hecker with President George W. Bush in a post-9/11 photograph.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Jimmy Duckworth on patrol in the Mississippi River. 'It's a different world between these levee tops,' he says. - U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Chad Saylor
  • U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Jimmy Duckworth on patrol in the Mississippi River. 'It's a different world between these levee tops,' he says.
    U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Chad Saylor
This Coast Guard special anti-terrorism unit based in Houston can be sent to the Port of New Orleans on 12 hours notice, officials say. - U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA3 Kyle Niemi
  • This Coast Guard special anti-terrorism unit based in Houston can be sent to the Port of New Orleans on 12 hours notice, officials say.
    U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA3 Kyle Niemi

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