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Baltimore still vulnerable to attack, officials say

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, homeland security in Baltimore was defined by color-coded terror warnings, police with automatic weapons standing guard at the Inner Harbor and officers racing from one suspicious package to another.

It was a reassuring show of force during an uneasy time.

But 10 years later — and with millions of dollars spent arming and outfitting cops in the latest weaponry and gear — the swarms of police have largely receded from public view. Front-line forces protecting Baltimore from terrorism now operate from a nondescript office park in Woodlawn.

The focus these days is on better communication among myriad local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, and on analyzing tips with specific implications for Maryland and its largest cities.

Police, politicians and experts in terrorism all say that Baltimore is far safer now than it was 10 years ago, but the city remains a tantalizing target for anyone seeking for a convenient alternative to New York and the nation's capital. And fading federal funds have some officials concerned that priorities have shifted.

"If there's a threat to New York and there's a threat to Washington, D.C., it's a threat to Baltimore," said Special Agent Gerald Roberts, a supervisor in the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Maryland.

Roberts, who was in Manhattan on Sept. 11 and sped to the World Trade Center as the second hijacked plane roared overhead seconds before impact, lost two friends and two colleagues in the towers. He said he chases down leads on possible terrorist activity "to the bitter end."

The tips, on their own, can seem meaningless: A driver on Interstate 95 sees someone looking at a bridge; a beat cop notices a car parked outside a chemical plant one day, then outside a second one the next; a security guard wonders why someone is buying 200 pounds of fertilizer.

It's Roberts' job to determine if the events have meaning.

"In the first three years after 9/11, every threat we got was a fire drill," said Richard A. McFeely, the special agent in charge of Maryland's FBI field office. "If there was even a hint of anything, we went running out in full riot gear. Now, it's a more measured response. We have a much better idea of what terrorism is."

After the terrorist attacks, Baltimore's mayor and police commissioner were among the harshest critics of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies withholding information that they said they needed to protect the city.

Edward T. Norris, who was commissioner on Sept. 11, had complained that the FBI wouldn't tell city officials the source of a tip that anthrax was about to be unleashed in Baltimore — a threat deemed credible at the time and one that led to warnings but no evacuations.

"What got me most was that the FBI didn't understand that we needed the information," Norris recalled recently. "I don't care if you overheard it in a coffee shop in Egypt. I need the information to protect the city. The key to this is communication. That keeps the country safe."

In 2003, just beyond the Baltimore Beltway in Woodlawn, state police opened the "Fusion Center," one of three dozen created nationwide to coordinate tips and investigations, but also to gain access to information.

Here, law enforcement officers from up to 28 local, state and federal agencies work together to connect disparate dispatches — from citizens calling tip lines posted on overhead highway signs to cops on traffic stops. On any given day, they examine 50 to 100 leads.

The terrorists who launched the Sept. 11 attacks had left similar clues. Six of the 9/11 hijackers had stayed in a motel on U.S. 1 in Laurel and raised suspicions while there. One had taken flight lessons outside of Washington. Another had been stopped on Interstate 95 for speeding two days before the attacks, was handed a ticket and sent on his way, with no questions asked about why he'd rented a car in New Jersey but lived in Virginia.

Authorities say such incidents would receive more scrutiny now.

Maryland State Police Superintendent Col. Marcus Brown said a trooper trained in the post-Sept. 11 era would have questioned the hijacker about that rental car, and might have checked to see if his name was on a watch list. At the time, such lists were not accessible to local authorities.

"How different that traffic stop would've been today," Brown said.

William H. Parrish, a retired Marine colonel who teaches homeland security at Virginia Commonwealth University, said, "When a cop pulls over a car that has been sitting outside a chemical plant in Baltimore, and another cop later sees that same car sitting outside a chemical plant in Virginia, that connection needs to be picked up."

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was Baltimore's mayor when the attacks occurred, now sits on the national Homeland Security Advisory Council. He said in an interview that cooperation is far better now but still not where it should be.

"It's an evolving process," he said. "Every week we hope we're a little better than we were the week before. … I think there's still a lot more we can do with intelligence analysis that we're not yet doing well in the fusion centers."

Those centers are at the heart of what the governor calls "marrying up information."

Despite what O'Malley says is a need to improve, federal homeland security money has slowed. Maryland, which in 2010 raked in $15.8 million in grants for police equipment and terrorism planning, is slated to get roughly half that this year, just $7.9 million.

The funding reductions, which are also happening elsewhere, have been attributed to budget cuts, the expectation that cities will maintain rather than purchase new equipment, and the banning of congressional earmarks.

O'Malley lamented the decline of federal grant money. "Sure it slows you down," he said, noting "the only reason" there is no seamless communication system "for first responders in every metropolitan area is money. The less grants, the less capacity."

Cities are faced with tough budget choices, and many are having a difficult time maintaining purchases once viewed as vital. Last year, city police fought to keep their marine unit, built with $400,000 of homeland security money and designed to patrol vulnerable waterways.

The city also threatened to cut the Police Department's helicopter unit, in place before Sept. 11 but deemed invaluable for continued counter-terrorism duties. Both were saved at the last minute.

City police no longer have representatives in the Fusion Center, ending participation at least for now by not filling vacant positions.

A police spokesman said the department has instant communication with the Woodlawn center and an intelligence unit.

In addition to intelligence-gathering, Baltimore police officers still monitor bridges, ports, stadiums, power plants and military installations. The department briefly went into terror alert mode when a recent earthquake shook the city, deploying police to virtually every downtown street corner, putting its tactical team on standby and flying its helicopter overhead.

James J. White, the executive director of the port of Baltimore, said visiting the port is far more challenging than it was before the attacks.

"Ten years ago, if you drove up to any marine terminal in the country and gave the security guard a confident look and a friendly wave, you were in," White said. Now, you need two ID cards, one that contains personal biometrics, and for visitors, a proven "purpose and need" to be on terminal grounds.

The port works with U.S. Customs and the U.S. Coast Guard to provide security and inspect cargo. The port was criticized in July 2005 for lapses in security, including the use of a dummy wooden surveillance camera put up by transportation authority police at the Dundalk Marine Terminal.

"It looked a like a bird cage," said White, who became director after that revelation, and notes the port's recent top rankings in Coast Guard security surveys. "We don't have any more bird cages in the marine terminals."

He said being close to Washington has made the port a testing ground for some of the latest and most advanced surveillance equipment, such as screeners that allow customs agents to peer into large containers.

New waterside barriers are in place, as are new fences and guardrails to prevent people from crashing gates with vehicles.

These days, the FBI's McFeely is most concerned about lone gunmen and so-called "soft targets" rather than attacks at military installations or other well-protected government buildings. Those soft targets include not only rail lines — which carry cargo and passengers travel through and under the city's most populated areas — but large events such as last week's Grand Prix and football games at M&T Bank Stadium.

Authorities caution that though the city is safer, the terrorism threat remains real.

In December, authorities arrested a 21-year-old Baltimore County man who the FBI says wanted to blow up a Catonsville military recruiting center. His case is pending.

In 2005, local police shut the Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels after an Egyptian who had once lived in Baltimore told authorities in the Netherlands about a plot to blow up one of the tunnels. The tip was later discounted as a ruse by the informant to return to the United States.

Over the years, authorities have arrested several others in the Baltimore area with alleged connections to terror plots. There also have been mail bombs sent to public officials, and numerous other scares that later turned out to be unrelated to terrorism.

"We have a much better recognition of things that need to be done," said O'Malley, who believes Maryland is under constant threat because of its location. "The nation's capital is physically on our side of the Potomac River. We'll always be more vulnerable than other states, therefore we have to be more prepared than other states."

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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