Making Baltimore a hard target

Sun Staff

On the Day After, the morning of Sept. 12, Mayor Martin O'Malley was frustrated. He wanted guidance on what Baltimore should do to protect itself against terrorism, and he couldn't get answers or even a basic checklist from anyone, including federal officials.

So he called his friend, former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, who was co-chairman of a commission on America's security needs and whose presidential campaign poster hangs in O'Malley's office.

"He said: 'You really shouldn't wait for the federal government. You've got to do it yourself,'" recalled O'Malley, who worked on Hart's 1984 and 1988 campaigns. "He said: 'And the last thing on [the federal government's] mind is to come up with a how-to book for the local governments. ... Just get smart people together in a room and figure it out yourself. That's what I would do if I were you.'

"So that's what we did."

Ever since then, O'Malley has been running a wartime local security campaign that appears to be one of the most intensive, comprehensive and certainly most public of its kind in the country.

He fervently believes his city is part of the Afghanistan war's other front -- the major U.S. population centers with vulnerable targets.

His commanders on what he calls the "home front" are the police commissioner, fire chief, health commissioner, public works director, transportation chief, finance director, a recently hired terrorism consultant and other officials throughout the government.

His campaign to make Baltimore a "hard target" for terrorist attacks might have been the object of derision a month ago. But now O'Malley is America's new anti-terrorism mayor, testifying before Congress, showing up on network television and giving tips to mayors across the country through Internet videoconferences, including one planned for this afternoon.

The objective, he said, is to shore up the home front.

In the assault on Afghanistan, "Our soldiers have a clearly defined chain of command. They have the best equipment, and the best technology," said O'Malley, complete with a military sense of urgency.

But at home, he said, "We have a shortage of equipment, we have a shortage of technology. We have nothing resembling intelligence rushing to the front."

The image of the mayor of Baltimore commanding his top officials like a cadre of security forces might be reassuring to citizens worried about the possibility of another terrorist attack -- should one come -- hitting close to home.

But it also might be unsettling to Baltimoreans used to seeing their leaders, especially O'Malley and Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, focus their energies and dollars on crime, an issue that already hits home.

It certainly worries O'Malley. The city spent $1.5 million on police overtime in the four days after Sept. 11, the mayor said, and he's talking about adding a "security charge" to residents' water bills to pay for the increased security and testing at the city's water and wastewater facilities.

"I really would like to use the 3,000 police officers I have to attack the chemical warfare that we've been suffering under for many years," O'Malley said, referring to the heroin and cocaine trade on Baltimore's streets.

"I would really like to be spending every single dime I have on attacking those things. As a practical matter that's not possible or responsible to do right now," he said. "But ... what I could have done with that $1.5 million if I had it for additional enforcement and drug unit and other things makes me want to cry."

The Police Department continues to devote some resources to security that it once devoted to fighting crime -- though the administration notes that violent crime is still down significantly in 2001.

Since Sept. 11, when the city was on its highest state of alert, Baltimore has not returned to the lowest, normal level of readiness, said Norris, who was with the New York Police Department for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

In the past month, Norris and the O'Malley administration -- with the help of retired New York Police Department official Louis Anemone, hired as a terrorism consultant -- have identified numerous possible threats to the city and started preparing for each one.

Officials are compiling a list of roughly 200 potential targets for attack in the city -- such as government buildings and highway tunnels -- including about 60 considered "critical," Anemone said. The department has officers assigned to monitor many sensitive sites not already guarded by other agencies, including 30 officers a day for watershed areas alone.

"Our belief is that these guys do a lot of planning and a lot of testing of the places they intend to hit before they actually carry out their mission," he said. "It's our plan, if they actually have something in mind, to catch them doing their recon at one of these sites before they've had the opportunity to strike.

"We're going to catch them taking a photograph. We're going to catch them backing up against a [concrete traffic] barrier to see if they can move it."

To prepare for the threat of biological weapons, the city set up a multi-tiered "biosurveillance system" that involves daily monitoring of school attendance records, dead animal carcasses, pharmacy drug sales, and patients with cold and flu symptoms -- all so that officials can detect unusual spikes that might warn of an attack in progress. The city also tracks hospital bed availability so that officials know where patients can go if there is an attack.

To address any chemical threat, the city has taken a number of steps, including asking the CSX Corp. not to transport hazardous chemicals through the Howard Street railroad tunnel during sporting events at and Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- including last Saturday night's farewell game for Cal Ripken Jr.

"It's just crazy to let them go around doing business as usual at a time like this," Anemone said.

And, O'Malley said, "There're things we haven't done yet that we'll probably be doing a lot more, and that is tabletop exercise scenarios, mock emergencies, drills and things of that nature."

The magnitude of this effort becomes clear at the frequent security briefings at City Hall, where city officials give updates on virtually each of these security measures.

At yesterday morning's briefing, Norris reported that with officers stationed in intelligence rooms in New York and Washington, he quickly learned of a dangerous incident at a Washington Metro station Tuesday, and he dispatched police to Metro stations in the city just in case it was part of a coordinated terrorist attack.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner, stressed that he needs to know quickly when there's any potential bioweapons scare: "Just like Commissioner Norris needs to know the police intelligence, we need to know the health intelligence."

Public Works Director George L. Winfield reports that the city water is still being tested several times a day, and all of the tests have come up negative.

Transportation Col. Alfred H. Foxx Jr. reports on the status of the city's evacuation plan for major emergencies. O'Malley asks about whether he can get an hour on the local government television channel to explain what the city is doing about security and what citizens need to know.

The mayor moves the meeting along, soliciting updates, setting deadlines and frequently interjecting commentary. He has clearly become well-versed in security lingo since Sept. 11, when he first told Norris' chief of staff, John Stendrini, "We're going to make Baltimore the model city in preparedness."

Since that day, some security experts say, Baltimore might have done more to prepare for a terrorist attack than any other major city outside New York and Washington.

And O'Malley has made himself something of a national spokesman on the issue. In the past week, he has appeared on Dateline NBC and CNN, and he and Norris have testified before a congressional subcommittee, criticizing the FBI for not sharing more intelligence information with his police.

O'Malley said he didn't aim to raise his profile when he decided to defend Baltimore. Like local leaders across the nation, especially those near New York and Washington, his reaction on Sept. 11 was instinctual and, O'Malley said, in the case of Baltimore, natural.

"It's the 17th-largest city. It's just outside of Washington. It's an attractive place to do business because of its strengths, its access by water, by rail, by airport. (Interstate) 95 runs right through it, including through two tunnels and one bridge, which is the major artery for commerce moving by truck," he said. "So all of those things which are strengths for us also are potential targets."

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