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Terror response: A tale of three cities

Nearly  four years after 9/11 attacks, responses to a federal decision to raise the terrorist threat level to "orange" vary widely, in part due to the huge cost of past alerts. Experts say that is probably as it should be. By Michael Moran.
A member of the New York Police Department's Emergency Services Unit patrols in New York
A New York City special services  patrolman on guard Thursday at Grand Central Station. Chip East / Reuters

From giant New York State, to tiny Alpine County, Calif., public officials around the country Thursday faced a dilemma that has become sadly familiar: What to do about the "orange alert" order for trains and mass transit systems?

The order, issued by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff following deadly attacks in London, resulted in actions around the United States as different as apples and oranges. Among the factors weighing heavily upon these officials is the enormous costs incurred in previous alerts even in places where the likelihood of an attack seems remote. looked at three, in particular: the state of New York, the city of Portland, Maine, and the rural administration of Alpine County, Calif. The question: Nearly four years after the 9/11 attacks, how are federal alerts interpreted? Experts say Thursday’s response suggests a maturing perspective on the alerts, though some still question whether the value of the color-coded threat system.

In New York state, where nearly 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks, and in Portland, Maine, home to an airport used by some of the 9/11 attackers, the response began well before Chertoff raised the threat level.

Officials in New York deployed thousands of police and emergency workers to mass transit hubs; Portland confined its response to phone calls to local transportation agencies; and in Alpine County, along the mountainous border with Nevada, the Thursday attacks occurred at a time when most people were still asleep, and officials appeared to take the whole thing in stride.

“What we’re seeing is that many local leaders are starting to be more judicious in how they react,” says Juliette Kayyem, a counter-terrorism expert at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and a consultant to MSNBC TV. “Chertoff’s comments present a paradox for every jurisdiction. He specifically said there’s no credible threat to the U.S., but then raised the issue of copycats. What a mayor or county commissioner outside the big coastal cities should do is not really clear.”

Clarity in Albany
News of Thursday’s bombing attacks on London reached New York State Gov. George Pataki through the state’s emergency management system.

"I was at home upstate when I got a call from the state police informing me of the bombs in London, then shortly after that I contacted my security people," Pataki said in an interview. By 6 a.m., he said, "they had already taken taken steps to do things like check trains with canine units, add extra security to bridges and tunnels."

By 8 a.m., Pataki was conferring by telephone with the governors of neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridges, tunnels and three international airports in the area.

The result was an executive order from Pataki "so New Jersey and Connecticut police could ride commuter trains in with police powers into New York."

New York estimates the cost of an orange alert to New York City alone at about $5 million a week. Still, given local history, there is an enormous tolerance for what might be called “local defense spending.”

"This is something we’re not even concerned about," he said. "You have to put the security of people first, then we'll work with the federal government about the costs."

For obvious reasons, governments at various levels are not eager to provide details of their deployments in the current alert. At the same time, particularly in cities regarded as realistic potential targets, they are eager to show they are reacting to the federal directive. Officials from Boston to Miami to Los Angeles, for instance, decided to deploy additional officers to rail and bus depots. In some cities – including Washington – officers swept commuter trains and stations. Special weapons units were put on alert, as were some National Guard units dealing with weapons of mass destruction.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley says his city, too, decided to deploy extra police to mass transit well before the federal move. “It’s nice that they eventually got around to declaring an orange alert, which means they’ll theoretically pick up the overtime. But we had made that call at 6 a.m.”

But the cost can't be totally ignored, experts say. The Government Accountability Office, a non-partisan arm of Congress,  estimates that in an orange alert that spanned the 2003 holiday period — from Dec. 21, 2003  to Jan. 9, 2004 — New York City spent over $15 million, and Los Angeles $9.3 million. In the smaller city of Knoxville, Tenn., local officials have told the federal government that every day of an orange alert costs them about $3,000.

Calls in Portland, calm in the Sierra
While in past alerts Portland, Maine’s largest city, added police and fire shifts that cost some $5,000 a week, this time the  response was measured.

Deputy Police Chief Tim Burton says most of the city’s response took place on the phone and in small, internal agency meetings.

Burton learned of the London attacks at 5:30 a.m., from Portland’s emergency communications center. After conferring with city officials, he says, it was decided the response should be primarily informational, “contacting the transportation facilities locally and conferring with them on measures to be taken to ensure that they were exercising due diligence.” He also said local emergency agencies reviewed agreed upon procedures for changes in the national threat level.”

But, he said, “no additional staff have been added today.”

Even less urgency prevailed 2,300 miles to the west in Markleeville, Calif., the Alpine County seat. The county took some heat locally in 2003 and 2004 when newspapers in Los Angeles and Ventura County learned that the tiny, rural jurisdiction had received nearly 20 percent more money per capita for homeland security preparedness than California’s major cities.

Still, experts say Thursday’s alert hardly argues for a rush to the breaches in the high Sierra. The county, located south of Lake Tahoe, contains no mass transit or train lines, taking an orange alert under advisement rather than pulling out all the stops is probably the wise move. “What specific guidance could a small town glean from Chertoff’s statement?” Kayyem of Harvard asked. “He said no credible threats, and while that’s not particularly reassuring, it doesn’t beg any particular action, either.”

More information, please
The lack of specific guidance leaves local government leaders with a terrible dilemma: order overtime shifts and run up a huge bill that may harm the local government’s fiscal health, or ignore the alert and risk political crucifixion if something does happen. Adding to the problem, cities say, is uncertainty about who will pick up the tab. While the federal government pledges to reimburse such costs, cities are wary of a system that funnels their money through state budgets first, complaining that a “trickle down” affect leaves them short.

“I guess there are two shades of orange," O'Malley quipped. "Sometimes we get reimbursed, sometimes it seems not to happen. But one way or another, we do the responsible thing to protect the public. We’re willing to pay if it comes to that.”

The GAO concluded in a January report that in past alerts some municipalities accrued enormous costs, most related to overtime for emergency and law enforcement workers, or the deployment of National Guard troops. Others, the study found, decided to do nothing because the information appeared too vague to act on.

“This color system is like a terrorism “mood ring,’ it just is not an effective system,” says Larry Johnson, a former head of counter-terrorism at the State Department. “You have to be able to tell people what to do if you want them to act, and our system does not do that. Instead, this will result in a temporary boost of patrols around subways and metros with no particular threat to go on just so politicians can be seen to be doing something. In reality, though, it’s like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, and then going inside and spending a whole lot of time and money looking for the horses.”

One thing that may mitigate costs this time around, however, is the fact that Chertoff very specifically singled out trains and mass transit – even specifically excluding airports. That follows recommendations from mayors and governors, echoed by GAO reports and other expert testimony, that questioned the value, wisdom and cost-effectiveness of the kinds of blanket orange alerts that occurred more frequently in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

In its report, GAO noted that in the past: “public warnings did not include guidance on actions to be taken in response to a specific threat.”

This time, Chertoff went out of his way to be specific, even to the point of excluding airports. "I want to emphasize that: targeted only to the mass transit portion of the transportation sector," Chertoff told reporters. intern Caroline Kim contributed to this report.