1999 — the year in review:
Targeting gremlins first, then terrorists
Law enforcement agencies gear up for possible Y2K problems and finds plenty to keep them busy.
It seemed prudent in the first six months of 1999 that law enforcement concentrate its Y2K efforts on ensuring that internal and external computer breakdowns, power outages or the loss of 911 service did not — metaphorically speaking — hold any city hostage. From Appleton, Wis., where officials had drawn up a contingency plan closely following guidelines set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to Lubbock, Tex., which organized one of the nation’s first Y2K civil defense drills, police agencies were preparing for the infrastructural problems that forecasters believed would be the major nightmares associated with computers unable to make the transition to the year 2000.
In hindsight, it was either lucky or a bold stroke of prescient planning that police departments got their technological and emergency-preparedness houses in order first. As the new year/century/millennium drew closer, it freed them up to tackle the kind of things that police do best — protecting the public from crime and violence. And that became the overwhelming concern in the weeks leading up to New Year’s Eve, as fears of a worldwide computer shutdown were eclipsed by new and justifiable concerns about possible terrorist attacks on Americans during the millennial celebrations hosted by major cities nationwide.
Just days before Christmas, suspected Islamic terrorists were captured at the Canadian border in both Washington and Vermont as they tried to drive into the U.S. with bomb-making materials in their cars, and members of a California militia group were charged in a plot to blow up propane tanks. On Dec. 21, no less than four Federal agencies issued warnings and announced security measures to guard against extremist acts both here and abroad.
The State Department warned American travelers that terrorism was a risk to large tourist groups planning to attend religious or millennial festivities. The U.S. Customs Service ordered 300 additional agents placed at the nation’s borders. Uniformed police and bomb-sniffing dogs were ordered to patrol airports by the Federal Aviation Administration, and security, especially around the facilities’ parking areas, was strictly enforced. Even the Pentagon issued a statement promising heightened security for U.S. troops overseas.
It was a delicate balancing act for local, state and Federal officials, who, while advising caution did not want to frighten away the throngs of people expected at major events, such as those held in New York City and other cities. (A gala event that was expected to be attended by 50,000 people at the Seattle Center on New Year’s Eve was canceled.) U.S. Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asked Americans to be vigilant for anything and anyone who looked suspicious, especially at the sites of large holiday events that might attract a crowd. “We’re doing everything in our power to prevent any attacks from occurring and to bring to justice those people responsible for planning any such attacks,” said Holder. President Clinton echoed the warnings about terrorism, saying that while there was no specific information that any extremist group planned attacks against the United States, extraordinary measures were being taken.
Such was the concern that a poll by USA Today found that many Americans planned on staying close to home, away from crowds, and out of what they feared was harm’s way. As many as 50 percent queried by pollsters said they were less likely to attend large public gatherings on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Sixty-two percent said they thought it somewhat likely or very likely that a terrorist act would occur on one of those two days.
On Dec. 8, two men were arraigned on firearms charges related to an alleged plot to blow up two large propane tanks in Elk Grove, Calif., a suburb of Sacramento. The tanks, which were located near homes and the heavily traveled California Route 99, hold 24 million gallons of the highly flammable gas. A successful attack on either of the tanks would have likely resulted in a firestorm that could have reached as far as 10 miles from the site, and caused a fatality rate of 50 percent within a radius of five miles, according to a study conducted for investigators by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
A search of the homes of Kevin Ray Patterson, 42, of Camino, and Charles Dennis Kiles, 49, of Placerville, uncovered more than 50 firearms, 50,000 rounds of ammunition and about 30 pounds of fertilizer that could be turned into explosives, said Federal officials. Both men were identified in an affidavit as members of the San Joaquin County Militia. Law enforcement was tipped to the scheme by a informant who told agents that Patterson first raised the possibility of targeting the propane facility in 1998. The informant said that Patterson had talked about it while returning from Billings, Mont., where members of the group had conducted surveillance of the Yellowstone County Jail in anticipation of a militia operation to break the Montana Freemen out of custody.
On Dec. 14, Customs agents arrested Ahmed Ressam, a 32-year-old Algerian national suspected of being an agent of exiled Saudi terrorist Osama Bin Laden, as he tried to enter Port Angeles, Wash., from Vancouver, B.C., with 150 pounds of bomb-making chemicals and detonators. The liquid nitroglycerine, urea powder and timing devices uncovered by authorities had the potential to make a bomb capable of causing tremendous damage in a city office building or a crowd of people, according to one government official.
Ressam entered the country last February using a false passport and had other fraudulent identification, including a Canadian drivers license that listed his name as Benni Noris. According to Agence France-Presse, the French news agency, Canadian officials believe Ressam belongs to the Islamic Armed Group, a terrorist organization that operates primarily in North Africa and Europe. Ressam was carrying maps of Washington, Oregon and California in his car, said officials. American and Canadian authorities continued to search for a second man they believe was Ressam’s accomplice. Officials said the second man stayed with Ressam for the three weeks in a motel south of downtown Vancouver. They are not sure of his involvement in the plot, but are seeking him for questioning.
At a border crossing in Beecher Falls, Vt., on Dec. 19, a man and woman linked to the Algerian Islamic League, a terrorist group active in Europe and Asia, were arrested after trying to cross into the U.S. illegally. The woman, Lucia Garofalo, was using a cell phone and automobile traced to a leader of the organization, said prosecutors. Her companion, Bouabide Chamchi, had a fake French passport. Both were held without bail in a Vermont jail.
Officials closed the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas on Dec. 22 after Customs inspectors in Freeport detained a traveler whose luggage contained magnets, wire, batteries, a circuit board and putty. The man, whose name was not released because he had not been charged, was on his way to Miami International Airport and then Oklahoma City.
Even former FBI official James Kallstrom, who was assistant director in charge of the bureau’s New York field office, had the Y2K jitters. In a move that irritated local officials, Kallstrom said he would not be attending the massive gathering in Times Square, which he called an open invitation to terrorists. “I personally wouldn’t go to any event in Times Square,” he said. “If there is a strike, it will be in a large gathering. The prudent thing is to celebrate by yourself or with your family.”
Just days before New Year’s Eve, officials in Seattle called off a major celebration at the Space Needle that had been planned for two years. City officials were apparently uneasy about the large crowd in light of Ressam’s arrest. “We have been worried about the Armageddon people, and this terrorism issue was just one more thing,” said Ron Sims, the executive for King County. “It just didn’t feel right. We’ve seen enough signs that there could be trouble.”
While there would still be a fireworks show at the Needle, the public was barred from an 75-acre public area surrounding the 605-foot spire. “Although we are comfortable that Seattle is not a target, we cannot assure people that there’s no risk,” said Mayor Paul Schell.
Granted, there are no guarantees, but other cities saw no reason to cancel their celebrations. They just took extraordinary security measures on New Year’s weekend to protect the public.
New York City has been planning for its festivities for the past three years, and has developed an elaborate plan to ensure the safety of the 1 to 2 million revelers authorities were expecting to crowd into Times Square. Some 8,000 police officers, including supervisors and plainclothes officers, will blanket an area half the size of Central Park, and all vehicles within the mile-long, three-block-wide strip of Midtown will be towed to thwart possible car bombings. All manholes in the area would be welded shut, and garbage cans removed from every street corner in the so-called frozen zone around Times Square. The department also invested in extra training for officers in the street to identify suspicious people as they ran a gantlet of tightly controlled passageways into Times Square.
In Washington, D.C., which is considered a potential target for extremists, the Metropolitan Police Department placed its entire force of 3,500 officers on 12-hour shifts from New Year’s Eve until Jan. 3. Sworn personnel were ordered to be available for work in days prior to Dec. 31 or after Jan. 3, if needed. Supplemented by members of the National Guard, nearly 700 officers would patrol the Mall area on New Year’s Eve, where several major events are planned, including the presidential gala.
The FBI has assisted officials in security planning for the festivities, said a spokeswoman for Mayor Anthony T. Williams’s office. A 100-page document spelling out police concerns about the potential for terrorism reads: “The mission of the Metropolitan Police Department for the period of transition into the new millennium is to protect the public safety while numerous events are occurring in the city, be prepared to address infrastructure problems due to Y2K disruptions, and mitigate terrorist acts.”
The FBI will be on guard not only for violent extremists, but for cyber-terrorists as well. In North Carolina, agents will be on 24-hour alert on Dec. 31 because of a “significant threat” from hackers who could release as many as 20,000 computer viruses as the new year begins, according to Justice Department estimates. From Dec. 29 through Jan. 3, 10 agents will staff a command center in Charlotte, which is one of only 10 bureau offices nationwide with a computer crimes unit.
As a further precaution, the Pentagon, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Social Security Administration and other Federal agencies planned to shut down their Internet Web sites for the holiday weekend to guard against computer viruses.
In October, attendees at the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference were briefed by the FBI on the views held by political and religious extremists who hold millennium-related ideologies that could lead them to commit violent acts. The study, called “Project Megiddo” after a ancient battleground in Israel, outlined a number of issues that law enforcement should be aware of, including indicators of potential violence, possible preparations for violence and the potential targets of millennial extremists.
The Anti-Defamation League also released a study on such groups, “Y2K Paranoia: Extremists Confront the Millennium,” which assessed the potential for action by some religious and secular groups. One example in the ADL’s study was the Fargo, N.D.-based National Socialist White Revolutionary Party, a neo-Nazi group that believes the Russians will use the crash of the nation’s computers due to a Y2K bug to launch nuclear and biological strikes against the United States.
Throughout the year, investigators uncovered terrorist plots around the country involving militia members, anti-abortion extremists and others:
A Lubbock, Tex., man Robert Keith Hill, 24, died March 17 when a pipe bomb he was building for use at an abortion clinic exploded in his lap. A second bomb was found in his house.
There was speculation in March that Eric Rudolph, a suspect in the bombing of two abortion clinics in 1998 who remains at large despite a massive manhunt by the FBI, was responsible for a blast at an Asheville, N.C., clinic in March. No one was injured in the explosion. The same clinic received an anthrax threat the previous month.
Police in Denver arrested Jack M. Modig, 39, a declared supporter of the Montana Freemen, in a plot to blow up Colorado’s largest mosque. Modig was captured on May 12 after he fled the site in a vehicle carrying bomb-making materials, guns and ammunition.
Thirty-four-year-old Matthew Vinuya pleaded guilty on April 14 in Michigan to plotting to assault and threaten to murder Federal officers and other workers. Minuya was a member of a group calling itself the North American Militia.
Matthew Hale, leader of the World Church of the Creator, was accused in July of committing fraud by soliciting money as a charity, according to court documents filed by the Illinois attorney general’s office. Hale’s white supremacist organization has been linked to Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, 21, who went on a three-day shooting spree that killed two people in the Midwest before killing himself.
Perhaps one of the safest places to be in the nation if riots broke out or terrorists launched a biochemical attack was Louisville, Ky. Last year, the city fine-tuned a model task force it set up in 1998, which included emergency responders, law enforcement, health-care providers and officials from other government and private organizations. At the University of Louisville, an investment was made in nerve-gas antidote and training emergency-room personnel to deal with victims of a biological or chemical strike.
Over a three-month period, the city’s police department taught more than 600 officers a riot-control strategy known as the mobile field force system. Modeled after a similar program in Miami, the tactics calls for officers to be deployed in smaller, more flexible groups which can be sent to multiple locations to quell civil unrest before it becomes full-scale mayhem.