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Agencies Get a Taste of Terrorism in Action

Times Staff Writer

A massive cloud of lethal gas, dozens of agonizing deaths by asphyxiation, an unknown number of hidden nuclear devices, executions, a ship full of hostages, and an enemy mine bobbing in the harbor: If any of it had been real, it would have been an absolutely horrible couple of days at the Port of Hueneme.

Fortunately, the series of catastrophes was part of an antiterrorism exercise, an elaborate two-day drama staged Tuesday and Wednesday with the help of the Navy, the Coast Guard, some 140 FBI agents, 81 officers from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department -- in all, representatives from 18 military and law-enforcement agencies.

Funded largely by a $2-million congressional appropriation, the exhaustive training session known as Asymmetric Warfare Initiative-O3 took nine months to organize. It culminated this week in a scenario known to a handful of planners but not to the more than 300 men and women desperately trying to cope with simulated infiltration by terrorists, a barrage of biological agents and, most importantly, each other.

“It’s not so much about technology as about how organizations work together to solve a problem,” said David Banks, director of the Center for Asymmetric Warfare, a terrorism consulting group that choreographed the event.

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The problem in this case was fictitious, but plausible enough to draw observers representing ports and police agencies from San Diego to Seattle.

Inside a warehouse at Naval Base Ventura County, a makeshift operations center buzzed with the latest on the unfolding disaster. Grim updates were posted on a board as dozens of emergency workers talked urgently on cell phones and strode from one group of desks to the next, alerting others to changes in a situation that would rank as one of the great American nightmares.

SARS cases jammed local emergency rooms. Drifting chlorine gas had killed at least 16 people and injured more than 1,100. There were dead and wounded on a moored Navy ship called the Foster. An unconfirmed television news report said that state Sen. Tom McClintock had received a suspected anthrax letter at his office in Sacramento.

Randy Aden, an FBI agent whose dark suit was well-pressed even in the swirl of chaos, offered the crowd a routine briefing: More than 30,000 residents in Port Hueneme and Oxnard had been evacuated after terrorists blew up a two-ton vat of chlorine. Triage centers had been set up in Ventura and Thousand Oaks. Sixty fire engines, 60 ambulances and 12 hazardous materials teams had been dispatched.

At least one FBI employee had been “executed” and a ship’s crew was being held hostage. Shared by the Navy and commercial shipping, the Port of Hueneme had been sealed, with the Coast Guard patrolling it by sea and by air.

“We know we have subjects in the port, but we have no IDs,” Aden said.

The air was serious but, with a caterer providing sandwiches and doughnuts, not as frenzied as it would have been in reality.

“We can’t replicate the stress but we can replicate the situation,” said Capt. Paul Grossgold, commander of Naval Base Ventura County. “I’ve told all my people to play this as realistically as possible.”

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As in real-world terrorism, the disaster was presaged with chatter picked up by intelligence sources: A suspicious ship was bound from Singapore to Los Angeles. On Tuesday, a Coast Guard team boarded it in the ocean off Port Hueneme and located a simulated nuclear device hidden in a 55-gallon drum.

On Wednesday, an increasingly complex and deadly series of events swamped the assembled emergency workers. An explosion rocked the Foster. The chlorine gas -- actually billows of smoke from a fogger -- spread. An FBI dive team discovered yet another device on a ship’s hull. The “terrorists” rampaged, taking hostages in the port.

Along the way, the participating agencies picked up lessons they will use to streamline some of their procedures.

“There won’t be wholesale changes,” said Banks, of the warfare center. “But even an hour saved could be a crucial hour.”

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The Ventura County sheriff’s SWAT team learned that storming a ship is a lengthier process than taking over a home, said department spokesman Eric Nishimoto. With the FBI taking the lead in the antiterrorist operations, officers also realized that dealing with a hierarchy of agents from all over the U.S. was not equivalent to dealing with operatives from the local office.

“It’s a totally different dynamic,” Nishimoto said.

Simply communicating with other agencies was sometimes difficult.

“Everyone’s enmeshed in their own acronyms,” said Tom Netzer, who coordinated the exercise for the Center for Asymmetric Warfare. “It helped when we got everyone just to just speak English.”

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As Netzer chatted with reporters on a wharf, a small boat chugged into the harbor and made a beeline for a big, gray Navy frigate. Deafening rounds of .50-caliber blanks filled the air. Two inflatable boats appeared from nowhere, and diverted Navy patrol boats. Within minutes, a blue barrel representing a mine was floating inches from the frigate -- a victory for the bad guys. “There will be arguments back and forth about whether the terrorists were shot before they could have placed the mine,” Netzer predicted.

Unlike real-world events, though, there would be no uncertainty about the conflict’s outcome.

“By 5 p.m.,” Netzer said, “the terrorists will be smoked.”


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