WAJAC’s work is far from theoretical. The Seattle area is considered a high-risk terrorist target because of its population size, its importance to the American and global economy, its status as a major international travel and maritime trade hub, and its location close to a foreign border.
WAJAC is on the lookout for signs of any threats to these assets. Two examples illustrate the effort and how it is working.
One concerns Analyst Mahood, a former physical security specialist for the FBI in Seattle. He pores over local 911 center call logs and police reports, looking for notable incidents and larger patterns of traditional criminal behavior. He also looks out for what he calls “pre-operational indicators” of possible terrorist activity.
Mahood cites the example of an unremarkable police report filed by a young officer who had been called to an area dollar store early in 2007 on a report of suspicious activity. The store clerk told him that a man had come to the store on consecutive days to purchase large quantities of liquid chlorine bleach and ammonia. The young and relatively inexperienced officer saw nothing to be concerned about. He filed a report and closed the case.
For Mahood, however, the two substances were a red flag. Combined, they could produce deadly chlorine gas which had been used in suicide bomb attacks by Iraqi insurgents. Mahood filed a report with WAJAC about the pattern of suspicious activity.
Luckily, the plot turned out to be more Caddyshack than al Qaeda. The purchaser of the chemicals was a local golf course groundskeeper struggling amid a state ban on gopher traps. To eliminate the pests, he poured homemade, heavier-than-air chlorine gas into their holes.
“There wasn’t anything to it, but it’s the kind of thing that I’m looking for,” Mahood says.
The second example concerns the ferries that carry 26 million people every year between Seattle, surrounding towns, and the Olympic Peninsula across Puget Sound. The Department of Justice considers the ferry system one of the country’s top potential maritime terrorist targets, while a 2004 FBI analysis of suspicious activity determined that of 153 incidents over three years, 19 were “likely or extremely likely” to have involved terrorist surveillance, according to the The Seattle Times.
Then, last year, area authorities received at least 15 reports of the same pair of men riding ferries in the region, acting suspiciously, and snapping photographs, Gomez says.
FBI agents and a handful of WAJAC analysts who are former detectives took to the field and interviewed witnesses, including ferry crews and staff. The investigators further benefited from the work of one of the ferry’s skippers, who engaged the men in innocuous conversation, Gomez says. The skipper also surreptitiously snapped some photos of the suspects with a digital camera.
After analyzing the data, state and federal investigators “anguished” over what to do with it, Gomez says. On Aug. 20, they decided to issue a public press release on the case, featuring two photos and requesting the public’s help in identifying the men, stating that the pair “exhibited unusual behavior, which was reported by passengers.” The release went on to note that, “While this behavior may have been innocuous, the FBI and WAJAC would like to resolve these reports.”
The news media’s degrees of cooperation varied; local broadcast stations and national outlets including Fox and ABC news broadcast the photos. The Times printed the photos along with a story based on the FBI release, while its competitor, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (P-I), wrote an article but did not print the photos.
Their article stated that “The P-I elected not to publish the photos, citing civil liberties and privacy concerns, which editors felt outweighed the newsworthiness of the images.”
The bulletin has not yet resulted in identification of the two men, but “the concept was working,” Gomez says. “We decided to err on the side of being cautious.”
Long-term plans for WAJAC include support for the 2010 Winter Olympics, to be held just over the border in Vancouver, Drake says.
As with other homeland security efforts, Washington State’s effort is still young, but it is off to a strong start not just because of funding or technology, but because of sheer will, says Eric Holderman, former executive director of King County Emergency Management and now a private consultant with ICF International. “I think it’s still just getting going, but it has worked based on the fact that people are willing to get together and put aside their petty differences,” he says.
Gomez agrees, noting, “It’s a work in progress.” And they have both the work and the progress to show for it.
Joseph Straw is an assistant editor at Security Management.