Home Land Insecurity

Uncle Sam has spoken: The states are virtually on their own to defend assets such as ports, refineries, chemical plants, railways, highways, and bridges against attack.
Fortunately, we don’t have any of those in New Jersey...

With one of the largest Muslim communities in the United States, Paterson might seem a likely incubator for homegrown terrorists. But last May, when federal investigators announced they had uncovered a plot to attack Fort Dix, five of the six people they arrested lived in Cherry Hill, while the other was a Philadelphia resident, and only two were from the Middle East. The charges against three members of an Albanian family, along with three others from, respectively, Turkey, Jordan, and the former Yugoslavia, suggest that in the War on Terror, there are no usual suspects.

New Jersey, with its dense population, thriving chemical industry, large public transportation system, and proximity to New York and Philadelphia, must be considered a prime terror target. In protecting its citizens, though, the state largely is on its own. According to Department of Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff, the federal government has other priorities, such as aviation security. Shouldering the load, New Jersey in recent years has refitted the state police to expand its role in counterterrorism, toughened laws on hazardous materials, and improved its ability to respond to terror and other potential disasters.

“Nothing is more important,” Governor Jon Corzine has said, “than the safety and security of our citizens.”

Yet huge security gaps remain: The Fort Dix plotters were discovered only because a Circuit City clerk, transferring a videocassette to DVD, noticed its jihadi content and called authorities. Nipping terrorism in the bud takes more than luck; it requires strong leadership in Trenton and better coordination with Washington, D.C., and average citizens.

  • Giants Stadium
  • Seating 80,242, the stadium offers terrorists the potential to inflict mass casualties in a way few other targets do.
  • Oyster Creek Generating Station
  • Perhaps a better protected target than most, the aging power plant remains an attractive target because it would be difficult to evacuate summertime beachgoers ahead of a radioactive cloud.
  • Kuehne Chemical Co.
  • A release of toxic gas from this Kearny chemical plant could blanket a sixteen-mile radius in which twelve million people live. Because wind disperses gas, casualties would likely be lower, but still approaching one million.
  • Port Newark-Elizabeth
  • An attack on the second-largest port in the United States could disrupt  shipping worldwide and, experts say, possibly trigger a recession.
  • Freight Trains
  • Hazardous chemicals often travel to and from New Jersey’s chemical plants by rail. Minimal security exists along freight lines, many of which snake through densely populated areas.
  • Commuter Trains
  • Other targets might cause more casualties and economic impact, but the chance of a successful attack is relatively high, because commuter trains are almost impossible to defend completely.
  • Delaware Memorial Bridge
  • Post-9/11 intelligence reports suggested that al-Qaeda might eye bridges next. Downing this twin suspension bridge could kill hundreds while delivering a heavy economic blow. 
  • Fort Dix
  • The Army’s basic-training facility seemed an unlikely target—until the FBI arrested five men living in Cherry Hill, and one from Philadelphia, on charges of plotting to attack soldiers at the fort.
  • Newark Liberty International Airport
  • Security has improved in the six years since United Flight 93 departed Newark, though most experts believe the system remains vulnerable. Fortified cockpits and passengers willing to fight back make a 9/11-style attack less likely, but last year’s liquid-bomb plot shows that planes remain prime terror targets.
  • Atlantic City Casinos
  • In addition to high body counts and economic impact, an attack here sends a message to radicals inclined to view casinos as symbols of vice.

Trenton invested $24 million in state funds to build a high-tech intelligence “fusion center,” which formally opened last January. From the outside, the Regional Operations Intelligence Center known colloquially among law-enforcement officials as “the Rock,” looks like an ordinary building on the state police compound in West Trenton. Unlike others, the ROIC was designed to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes. It can shelter its staff for up to a week after a disaster.

More than 40 fusion centers are in operation around the country. What separates the ROIC is that it doubles as the state’s operations center for all types of emergencies, from terrorism and industrial accidents to floods and blizzards. The idea is simple: Many of the agencies gathering intelligence at the ROIC are the same ones responsible for responding to emergencies.

The heart of the ROIC is the support room—a 100-seat chamber with a 32-foot video screen, suggesting a cross between NASA command and the set of the television series 24—where representatives from nearly every state agency remain at all hours. Working in shifts, they draw upon databases filled with everything from details of traffic stops and 9-1-1 emergency phone calls to blueprints of critical infrastructure and terrorist watch lists. Each day, federal agencies, such as the DHS and the FBI, send representatives to the ROIC, as do the state governments of Pennsylvania and New York.

The failure of the CIA and the FBI to foil the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks shows that bits of intelligence are useless until someone connects the dots. The ROIC literally removes the walls between agencies working toward a common goal, offering a rich pool of intelligence to draw from.

Collecting information on citizens worries civil-liberties experts, who claim it sacrifices civil rights for security. Governor Corzine disagrees. “I don’t believe we’ve created a system that will avoid the [judicial and administrative] checks and balances that allow us to protect civil liberties,” he says. “It’s a civil liberty to walk safely down the street.”

A July report by the Congressional Research Service concluded that fusion centers struggle to adequately identify and fill intelligence gaps. ROIC director Richard Kelly admits, “We’re not where we want to be” in identifying threats. “We have yet to come up with intelligence requirements common to [all] the centers,” Kelly wrote in an e-mail to New Jersey Monthly. He added, “This is a growing area, and we compete with other entities for experienced analysts. Training is available on a limited basis, but we cannot always take advantage of it at the federal level or by private pegs.”

Last fall the state police adopted its first manual on “intelligence-led policing,” requiring officers to focus more on sharing information. The aim, says R.P. Eddy, executive director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Policing Terrorism, which helped write the manual, is to turn police from first responders into “first preventers.”

In 2003 the state police created a 1,000-person counterterrorism unit able to defuse bombs, evacuate buildings, or simply deploy as a show of force to discourage would-be terrorists. Trenton managed to form the counterterrorism squad without adding personnel, reorganizing the force instead.

Effective policing nonetheless requires manpower, which costs money. Under a Republican-led Congress, a federal program to add police at the local level had its budget slashed 94 percent between 2001 and 2006, when the Democratic majority took hold. U.S. Senator Robert Menendez says Democrats have tried to revitalize the program, known as Community Oriented Policing Services—though the $10 million they added to its budget is a mere droplet: COPS doled out $1.1 billion in 2002.

Risk is inherent in the state’s $27 billion chemical industry. Deciding that years of ambiguous federal regulations had allowed security to lag at some of the most dangerous facilities, the state legislature in 2005 drafted an amendment to its 1985 Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act. The revised law would be more stringent than federal regulations, but still leaves wiggle room: It would require companies only to consider, rather than adopt, so-called Inherently Safer Technologies. Last March, Governor Corzine announced he would increase from 42 to 94 the number of facilities required to consider ISTs. The new amendment has yet to pass.

Research suggests that widespread implementation of ISTs can greatly reduce the risk of accidents and attacks, not only at plants but also on the roads and railways over which chemicals travel. Many of the most dangerous chemicals are transported in 90-ton railcars along virtually unprotected stretches of track, often through densely populated areas. In recent years, derailments in rural areas have caused cars to rupture; a rocket-propelled grenade likely could achieve a similar result. Should that occur in a densely populated area, the White House’s Homeland Security Council estimates the death toll could reach 17,500.

Last October New Jersey’s counterterrorism effort suffered a setback when the outgoing Congress authorized the DHS to set chemical security standards for the next three years. The DHS subsequently imposed rules less stringent than New Jersey’s—no requirement to even consider ISTs, for example—and claimed its rules  override state regulations.

In response, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Steven R. Rothman added language to an Iraq war funding bill to keep New Jersey’s rules in effect. President Bush vetoed the bill. Though Chertoff later announced that federal law will not pre-empt New Jersey’s rules, Garden State legislators were not appeased. They worry that the ambiguity of DHS regulations could undermine state standards if the chemical industry ever were to mount a court challenge.

“While [Chertoff] says, ‘Don’t worry,’” says Menendez, “the reality is there’s a difference between ‘Don’t worry’ and having clear language in the law.”

On July 7, 2005, when backpack bombs wreaked havoc on London’s subway system, New Jersey train commuters were reminded of their own vulnerability. One year later, FBI agents monitoring the Internet uncovered a plot by eight terrorists, most living abroad, to unleash just such an attack on a PATH train as it traversed one of the six tunnels beneath the Hudson River. The plot was in its early stages, but its potential impact is chilling to contemplate. Without a $500 million renovation, the escape passageways—some nearly 100 years old and only wide enough for single-file exit—would have hindered any rescue.

An attack on New York’s Penn Station likewise would have vast economic impact and loss of life. On weekdays, more people travel through Penn Station than through Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia airports combined. Even a temporary station shutdown would have far-reaching effects.

Screening the nearly one million rail and bus passengers traveling through New Jersey daily would be costly and impractical. Placing cameras on trains and platforms and increasing foot patrols provides some security without disrupting service, as do intelligence efforts at the ROIC. But none of this guarantees safety.

The stretch of Turnpike from Newark Airport to Port Elizabeth—with its refineries, chemical plants, rail yards, commuter trains, airports, and sea ports—has been called by the FBI “the most dangerous two miles in America.” Lautenberg cautions, “A disruption in the functioning of this region could have a disastrous effect on the nation.” More than $100 billion in goods pass through the Port of Newark-Elizabeth yearly.

Just 5 percent of the thousands of shipping containers that arrive every day are physically inspected. All containers are required to be screened for radiation, but some reports suggest that inspectors at times turn off the scanning devices because they produce too many false positives. (Apparently, bananas give off mild radiation.)

After an attack, ports would lock down, stranding loaded ships at sea and causing what Stephen Flynn, a top port security expert, calls “an unprecedented disruption to the global trade system.” Menendez says real progress on port security has to come at the federal level and should include improved screening of all cargo as well as more inspections at ports of origin.

In Hong Kong, for instance, all outgoing containers are X-rayed, scanned for radiation, and photographed as they are loaded. U.S. customs officials can review this information while the cargo is still at sea.

The government approved a plan to issue biometric I.D. cards to roughly 750,000 workers whose jobs require unaccompanied access to ports. Few cards have been issued. Lautenberg calls this “one of the worst bureaucratic delays we’ve seen,” but the TSA has had technical delays developing and deploying machines to read the cards.

The country’s oldest operating nuclear power plant, Oyster Creek, is just a few miles from Ocean County beaches and populous towns such as Toms River. Exelon, which operates the plant, cites its 37 years of safe operation as evidence that the facility poses no threat. But many in the community see the plant’s age as precisely the problem. That’s why they want it to close in 2009 when its operating license expires.

Peg Sturmfels, an Ocean County resident and program organizer for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, opposes the 20-year license extension Exelon has applied for. Sturmfels, who is not a scientist, says that in the event of an accident or attack, “Evacuation is virtually impossible.”

The state does have a plan to evacuate everyone within a 10-mile radius (oystercreeklr.com/preparedness.html). Sturmfels says the plan would take nine hours to complete, assuming everything goes smoothly. With only one road providing access to Long Beach Island, an efficient evacuation seems unlikely in summer. The state has given local health officials iodine packets for distribution in an emergency (iodine impedes the absorption of radiation)—not the most reassuring response.

Trenton has been inconsistent in its defense of New Jersey’s other waterfront, the Delaware River. In 2004, when the Army sought bids to disarm old stockpiles of VX nerve gas stored in Indiana, DuPont proposed adapting an existing water treatment facility in Deepwater, on the lower Delaware, to process a byproduct of the deactivated gas. Trenton opposed the plans, and DuPont abandoned its bid. Yet in 2003, when British Petroleum proposed building a liquefied natural gas terminal in Logan, just south of the Commodore Barry Bridge, the company seemed to gain state-level support.

But there was a hitch. An arcane 1934 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, based in part on land deeds dating to the 1600s, gives Delaware the right to approve or prevent construction on the east bank of the river. When Delaware opposed the terminal, New Jersey sued for the right to approve the terminal and all future construction on its side—a decision that appears motivated more by pride than concern for safety.

Though the natural gas industry has a good record, experts warn that an attack on a tanker at Logan could produce a fire so intense that people a mile away would suffer second-degree burns. The massive tankers would require a Coast Guard escort and put local responders on alert. “Several tankers a week would make that trip,” says Jane Nogaki, South Jersey organizer for the New Jersey Environmental Federation. “Why do we want to become a more visible target than we already are?”

Click here to leave a comment
Read more History, Towns & Schools articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.

Required not shown
Required not shown