The first hint of calamity came in deceptively routine form: a small fire in a rented Carson warehouse, apparently sparked by welders working on a lunch truck. But an investigation of that blaze turned up alarming details: respirators, a suspicious hookup on the truck, large sacks of rice flour.
Within weeks, those puzzling discoveries would plunge Los Angeles into a whirlwind as a routine fire probe rapidly spun into an international investigation, uncovering a terrorist weapons lab in Mexico and a plan to douse the nation’s second-largest city with anthrax and ricin. By the 40th day of the crisis, panic-stricken residents were flooding area hospitals, which buckled under the strain and then reeled as terrorists targeted them as well, poisoning emergency rooms with the same deadly chemicals.
That scenario -- all of it hypothetical but built on the actions of real terrorists elsewhere -- was presented at an uncommon gathering last week: Ten of the region’s leading public officials and anti-terrorism experts convened at The Times to respond to a simulated attack on Greater Los Angeles, testing their personal mettle and the region’s systems for investigating and reacting to a deeply destabilizing threat.
As they did, the participants displayed an openness and cooperation that has not always marked Los Angeles’ response to catastrophe. Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corp. who designed the complex scenario and guided the group through it, praised the participants’ instincts, even as he questioned whether some of their choices were influenced by the presence of reporters and cameras.
Still, there was comfort to be taken from the exercise, as the group’s members showed command of the vast interagency network constructed in recent years to protect Los Angeles from attack -- even one so chilling and uncontained as that which these panelists faced.
As investigators sifted through the rubble of a warehouse fire in Carson, their first guess was that they had come upon a drug lab. The men who worked there had paid cash to rent the space, then fled when the fire broke out. But as police and arson investigators took stock of the scene, a few items stuck out. In particular, there was the unusual exhaust system attached to the lunch truck. It did not look like any pipe they had seen, and when they shared their questions with other authorities, they concluded that it resembled a mechanism found at an Al Qaeda weapons lab in Afghanistan.
Suddenly, a warehouse fire took on ominous overtones.
James T. Butts, director of security for Los Angeles International Airport, was the first to say it: The evidence at the warehouse suggested a plot to disperse biological agents.
Others quickly agreed. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said Homeland Security needed to be alerted, and J. Stephen Tidwell, the agent in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, saw the potential for disaster. “Obviously,” he said, “there would be alarms going off.”
Thus, within hours, the region’s principal law enforcement agencies -- the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI -- already were collaborating and receiving information from fire departments and others.
For law enforcement, the discoveries triggered two responses: a rush to hunt down suspects and unravel the plot, but also an imperative to protect the public. At the same time, the suggestion that chemical agents were involved roped in another local agency, the county’s Department of Public Health. There, Dr. Jonathan Fielding identified, merely from the material seized at the warehouse, what authorities likely were up against: “anthrax,” he said, “and possibly ricin.”
Fielding asked that the area be quarantined and that a hunt be launched immediately for the workers who fled. He recognized the situation as “extremely explosive,” and urged that no time be lost.
That presented the participants with their first quandary: If the area were to be quarantined, that could hardly be done quietly. But if the public were notified of the situation, those behind it would undoubtedly go into hiding and the chance to catch them might be lost forever.
Janet Clayton, assistant managing editor of The Times and acting as the panel’s media advisor, urged prompt and accurate disclosure of the situation. Clayton made that argument on both principle and practicality: Releasing details would keep the public informed, and withholding them would prove fruitless in any event. “This information cannot be kept from the good reporters in town,” she said.
Of the group, only Chief Sandra Hutchens, head of the sheriff’s Office of Homeland Security, sounded a note of caution. She had warned that her colleagues needed to “start thinking about this becoming common knowledge” and expressed concern about the “potential for some panic.” Confronted with Clayton’s rejoinder, however, she went along with the rest of her colleagues and agreed that the time had come to let the public in on the case.
Never mind that an unknown number of suspects were still at large and that there was the possibility of hidden anthrax and ricin. The group elected to release what it knew.
Within moments, it knew a great deal more.
Richard Deppisch, director of emergency preparedness for the city’s Animal Services Department, was handed a telegram. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, it read, “have learned of a cluster of animal deaths and several hospitalizations of individuals in Baja, California, suffering symptoms consistent with anthrax.”
Rushing to investigate, American and Mexican officials took suspects into custody. Under questioning, they revealed they had been paid by Middle Eastern contacts, one known only as the “jefe,” to manufacture chemicals. Authorities concluded that 4 pounds of ricin and 10 to 20 grams of anthrax were unaccounted for, as were four dispersal machines, resembling leaf blowers. How serious were these chemicals? Two workers at the ranch where they were being made became ill and died. “It appears,” the group was warned, “that we have uncovered a major terrorist plot.”
And that plot, it also appeared, was directed at Los Angeles.
With that information, the scenario group moved from concern to conviction, and the full panoply of local and federal resources were called into play. Tidwell, at the FBI, said the news justified the deployment of federal law enforcement response teams and hazardous-materials units. Deputy Chief Mark Leap, the LAPD’s counter-terrorism chief, said it was time to activate the JRIC -- one of a blizzard of initialisms unleashed during the simulation, this one standing for Joint Regional Intelligence Center -- and begin the grim task of identifying possible targets in and around Los Angeles. Once identified, those targets needed immediate “hardening,” the imposition of safety measures to make them more difficult to attack.
Having already decided to alert the public in this crisis’ most nascent stage, some members of the panel now appeared to harbor second thoughts. “If we do come up,” Baca said cautiously, emphasizing the “if,” “we come up with one voice.”
No one disagreed. Clayton urged that the spokesperson not be a public information officer but a well-known public official -- L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, for instance. Maurice Suh, Villaraigosa’s deputy mayor for homeland security, agreed that the need for alerting the public was strong and that the release should include specific advice on where and how to seek shelter.
By this point, Tidwell said, he hoped the FBI would have 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week electronic surveillance on anyone associated with the warehouse fire or the Mexican manufacturing facility.
Although public alerts might chase those suspects underground, the situation was dire and growing more so. Residents, the panel concurred, needed to know as much as possible.
“The public,” Baca said to nods from his colleagues, “is entitled to protect itself.”
After that burst of activity, the pace of developments slowed. Over the next three weeks -- minutes in real time -- investigators located what appeared to be another truck geared to disperse chemical agents. Twenty-three suspects, believed to be operating in four cells, were placed under surveillance, continuing to operate despite the national clamor over the threat to Los Angeles. Health authorities were on alert for any signs of poisoning, but so far had no indication that any anthrax or ricin had been released.
At Animal Services, veterinarians and their assistants were on the lookout for animals that might have come in contact with poison. “They should be our eyes and ears in some respects,” Deppisch said.
Plans for animals also loomed in the background of the unfolding public alarm. As Deppisch noted later, more than half of all Los Angeles residents own pets; should an evacuation be necessary, plans must take into account how to move animals or their owners might resist. During Hurricane Katrina, for instance, difficulties locating and moving animals complicated New Orleans’ already catastrophic situation.
While Animal Services moved into action, other agencies were similarly on guard, hoping for a break while fending off the rising public clamor. False reports were finding their way to the media, and officials hastened to deliver accurate information, to respond to self-appointed “experts” and to hunt down the missing suspects and chemicals.
On the morning of Day 27, they moved.
The FBI, police officers and sheriff’s deputies launched raids across the region just before dawn nearly a month after the first indication of trouble. Over the crash of flash-bang grenades and splintered doors, they gathered 32 suspects, including 18 of the 23 who were under surveillance. One more dispersal device was seized, along with a pound or so of chemicals.
Amid the detritus of the suspects also was a map. Seven locations were circled: Union Station, the Los Angeles subway, the Library Tower, the Bradley Terminal at LAX, Universal Studios’ CityWalk, Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and the Los Angeles County jail.
For Butts, the map was the last straw. LAX is his responsibility, and with the airport itself now a known target and both chemicals and suspects still unaccounted for, the time had come to shut down certain operations. “For a considerable amount of time, the Central Terminal Area [will] be closed,” he said.
Others hesitated. Deputy Mayor Suh noted that some of those targets are private facilities -- the Library Tower, for instance. And LAPD counter-terrorism chief Leap stressed: “We’re not going to shut the city of Los Angeles down,” an assessment echoed by Hutchens of the sheriff’s Office of Homeland Security.
At the Los Angeles Unified School District, this last disclosure was too much. School officials generally opt to keep campuses open, said Dan Isaacs, the district’s chief operating officer. Schools are safe places with good supervision. But if any of the identified targets closed, he said, schools in the neighborhood would follow suit.
Hospitals now faced an onslaught, as residents poured in, believing that they were infected. Freeways were clogged with those trying to flee. A lot of people, the FBI’s Tidwell observed, took that moment to decide that it would be a good time to “be two states away.”
As hospital officials raced to keep up with their load, a number of staff members became sick. Authorities tested air conditioning vents and discovered traces of ricin and anthrax spores. Fielding, the county’s public health chief, now faced two barrels of a catastrophe: how to treat the sick, and how to persuade doctors and nurses to come to work.
“There would probably be definite attrition,” he told the panel. “On a good day, we don’t have enough nurses.”
The Fire Department did its best to help. Special equipment allows city fire officials to conduct field tests for anthrax, and can respond to 100 to 200 scenes a day, said Mario Rueda, a department chief. At the same time, officials desperately sought to inform the public about ricin and anthrax, stressing that poisoning from those agents is not contagious.
Still, as hospitals attempted to triage thousands of patients -- some actually sick, others merely overreacting to colds or coughs -- the system was confronted with more than it could take. Under such circumstances, Fielding conceded, it would be “hard to keep hospitals open.”
By the 40th day of the crisis, the investigation had turned the corner. All of the suspects were in custody, including two believed to be responsible for poisoning the region’s hospitals. One of those later died.
The publicity courted by the scenario group may have helped protect citizens from harm -- early and consistent warnings might well have allowed more people to leave the region or to recognize the difference between innocent symptoms and actual exposure to deadly spores. Now, residents who had scattered wound their way home.
Moreover, the investigation, though largely successful, was not complete. The jefe, the man thought to be responsible for the manufacture of the anthrax and ricin, escaped.
Few regions in the country are more accustomed to disaster than Southern California. Practice from earthquakes and wildfires, as well as plans put in place over the last five years, have left Los Angeles city and county with a strong commitment to inter-agency cooperation, officials say. That structure, much on display during the scenario, could benefit Los Angeles should an act of terror ever actually occur.
“Counter-terrorism is not a matter of car chases,” Jenkins, the scenario’s designer, said later. “It’s more like watching a construction project.”
Watching this one, he concluded: “I, frankly, feel remarkably reassured.”
And yet Jenkins cautioned against a clear declaration of victory. A simulation is, of course, merely a simulation, stripped of real-world angst and stress. As a result, some of the actions in last Tuesday’s scenario are misleading.
Agency rivalries and anguished choices about how and when to inform the public about investigative developments were largely swept under the rug by a group conscious of being observed, committed to getting along and eager to build confidence in its readiness. It is, some of the panelists agreed afterward, hard to imagine that authorities, in the first several days of such an investigation, would inform the public of their suspicions that a terrorist cell was at work planning a chemical attack.
Reflecting on the simulation a few days later, Jenkins remained impressed by the emphasis the participants placed on working together and by their instincts for maintaining trust with the public. Yet, Jenkins added, those are easier instincts to follow in a simulation than in the real thing.
“It’s easy,” he said, “to be a vegetarian between meals.”
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The Los Angeles Times invited leading officials at various city, county and federal institutions to participate in last Tuesday’s terror simulation. Those who attended were:
* Lee Baca, Los Angeles County sheriff.
* James T. Butts, who supervises security at Los Angeles International Airport.
* Janet Clayton, assistant managing editor of The Times.
* Richard Deppisch, emergency preparedness coordinator for the city’s Animal Services Department.
* Dr. Jonathan Fielding, county director of public health.
* Sandra Hutchens, chief of homeland security for the county Sheriff’s Department.
* Dan Isaacs, chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
* Deputy Chief Mark Leap, head of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter-Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau.
* Deputy Chief Mario Rueda of the Los Angeles Fire Department.
* Deputy Mayor Maurice Suh, who oversees homeland security and public safety for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
* Assistant Director in Charge J. Stephen Tidwell, head of the FBI’s Los Angeles office.
An expert on terrorism
The scenario was designed by Brian Jenkins, a nationally known expert on terrorism and senior advisor to the president of the Rand Corp. Jenkins, author of “Unconquerable Nation: Knowing Our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves,” worked with Rand officials and authorities at the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to design the details of the episode. He then presented them to the participants, who were not told in advance what they would confront.
Jenkins also consulted with officials at those agencies to be sure that no details were so unique that their disclosure would introduce new ideas to possible terrorists. At the conclusion of the session, Jenkins discussed it with a representative of the LAPD, who was confident that nothing would reveal sensitive information regarding the region’s preparedness.
Funding for the event was provided by The Times’ 125th anniversary fund.
Source: Times reporting
Los Angeles Times