Terrorism Early Warning Group Works to Keep L.A.'s Guard Up
In a cramped office inside Los Angeles County’s emergency operations center, John P. Sullivan sits buried in the latest intelligence on terrorists around the world.
Should any ever attack Los Angeles, this soft-spoken sheriff’s sergeant will be indispensable to the response.
A bookish, Brooklyn-born former volunteer fireman with an advanced degree in policy analysis, Sullivan understood the threat posed by Islamic extremists years ago.
At a time when most Americans might have confused Al Qaeda with a capital somewhere in the Middle East, Sullivan was the driving force behind the creation of a local interagency analysis center that has since become a model for the rest of the country.
Today, no official in Los Angeles knows more about how the county would respond with law enforcement personnel, health professionals and the latest in chemical, biological and radiological decontamination technology.
Sullivan’s mantra: Combating an agile terrorist network requires an equally agile network of government agencies.
“We are here,” Sullivan said last week, “to examine what the future may hold.”
His idea for Los Angeles’ Terrorism Early Warning Group -- more than two dozen county, state and federal agencies gathered under one roof five miles east of downtown -- began to form eight years ago.
Over coffee, he and a fellow sheriff’s deputy, Larry Richards, assigned to the emergency operations center spent hours discussing the growing menace of international terrorism -- and the devastating potential of an attack in Los Angeles.
“We were probably the only two guys around who thought this was interesting,” said Sullivan, a chain smoker who speaks with the urgent calm of a commando.
There had been the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York City, the March 1995 sarin nerve gas poisoning on a Tokyo subway and the bombing weeks later at the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Then, in the summer of 1996, a barely known Islamic extremist named Osama bin Laden called upon his followers to launch an attack on the United States and its interests anywhere in the world.
“That was the final piece,” recalled Sullivan. “We just thought to ourselves, ‘Can we do a better job of sharing intelligence within the public safety community?’ And the answer was yes.”
On the back of a napkin, Sullivan and Richards sketched out the design and structure of a new anti-terrorism “fusion” center in Los Angeles.
Their creation prepares daily for disaster, linking experts who might normally never speak until after a terrorist attack. Every day of the week, Sullivan and his staff assess whether there is any heightened threat of attack and send the information electronically to an array of agencies such as the FBI and the San Marino Fire Department.
Although Richards left after two years for another assignment, Sullivan remains a pivotal player at the center, refining the local program as he travels widely to bring the Terrorism Early Warning Group model to 50 U.S. cities.
“John is the key,” said Capt. Mike Grossman, who runs the Sheriff’s Emergency Operations Bureau. “No one else has stepped back to look at terrorism from the bigger picture the way he has. He is the visionary. He is the architect.”
A married father of two, Sullivan, 45, has spent most of his life in law enforcement and public safety. At the College of William and Mary in Virginia, he graduated with a degree in government, specializing in international relations. At the New School for Social Research in New York he earned a graduate degree in policy analysis and urban affairs.
When he and his wife, a Los Angeles native, moved to the West Coast, Sullivan applied for a job at the Sheriff’s Department.
As with all deputies, his first assignment was in the jail system. He quickly moved to other jobs before landing at the emergency operations bureau, where his brainstorming with Richards began.
Inside the center, Sullivan and others who specialize in counterterrorism have created a library of information about possible targets here, how to protect them and playbooks for responding if there is an attack. Although the FBI would lead the immediate response if terrorists attacked LAX, for example, Sullivan’s center would focus on what authorities would need to do in the hours and days afterward.
The center also catalogs countless details about specific sites, down to the locations of sprinklers within a building or the potential downwind effect of an attack on a sports venue.
In a county of 88 cities, 10 million people and scores of police, fire and other public service agencies, the center also has a pivotal role in coordinating how authorities prepare for and prevent terrorism. It helps bring together public safety workers from throughout the county to teach them such things as combating cyber-terrorism and recognizing potential suicide bombers.
It wasn’t always like this.
“At one of our first meetings, we started to discuss security measures and a law enforcement official said, ‘Wait a minute. We can’t discuss this in front of the Fire Department,” Sullivan recalled. “Larry and I told him, ‘Yes, we can. That’s why we’re here.’ ”
Early on, at monthly meetings convened to bring the Sheriff’s Department together with the region’s five other biggest players in public safety -- the FBI, the LAPD, County Health Services and the city and county fire departments -- Sullivan led the group in considering threats and its capabilities for response.
“And we found we didn’t have the capabilities,” he said.
One of their biggest vulnerabilities was dealing with the possibility of a chemical or radiological attack resulting in mass casualties. “We were probably capable of decontaminating only dozens of people at a time when we needed to do hundreds,” Sullivan said.
That goal has since been accomplished, he said. New mobile trailers and inflatable tents, funded by the federal government, allow decontamination units to attend to almost any number of people caught in such an attack. Improved training, also financed by new grants, and more protective equipment including chemical suits have also increased the number of public safety personnel who can respond to such emergencies.
As early as 1998, the center began looking at the threat of biological terrorism. In December 1998, only days after issuing guidelines to local agencies on how to respond to such attacks, the focus paid off. After county agencies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars responding to a string of anthrax hoaxes with hundreds of police and fire personnel, Sullivan’s center taught officials how to assess a threat and respond appropriately. Able to tell when a threat was a hoax, they no longer had to evacuate buildings in such cases.
The most dramatic advance since the early days is the center’s ability to obtain, process and disseminate intelligence. Although much of the information needed to develop operational responses is available from public sources, Sullivan says, he and key members of his staff have been granted among the federal government’s highest security clearances, allowing them to receive sensitive national intelligence about terrorists, including CIA reports funneled through the Department of Homeland Security.
As part of their training, Sullivan has all new members of the center view the 1965 film classic “The Battle of Algiers,” to better understand the harrowing dynamics of insurgent warfare.
“John has an exceptional mind,” said Randy Parsons, who directs the Los Angeles FBI’s counterterrorism efforts. “He is perfect for intelligence collection and analysis ... He gets you to look at things in a new way.”
Indeed, when the latest Osama bin Laden videotape emerged on the eve of last week’s election, Sullivan offered a theory on the tape’s significance.
While some analysts saw it as a preelection ploy to influence U.S. voters, Sullivan saw Bin Laden addressing his troops.
“Wartime leaders always talk to their own constituencies,” Sullivan said. “So he is not talking to us, he is talking to the community of jihadis.”
And the message, Sullivan said, seemed in concert with recent statements from Bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and the militant leader in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi: that the terrorist war goes well beyond Iraq and the Palestinian issue and involves a single overarching enemy, the United States of America.
“What worries me is complacency,” Sullivan said. “I think many people [in the U.S.] see this as a far-off threat because we haven’t been hit again and because people have the natural desire to put unpleasant thoughts out of their mind.”
But the current battle against extremists, he says, “is the decisive conflict of the 21st century ... and from a public safety standpoint, we are still in our infancy in terms of dealing with terrorism.”