Friday, 24 March 2006

A first-hand lesson in fighting terror

Mass. officials attend Israeli conference

BOSTON GLOBE | March 24, 2006

By Matthew Kalman, Globe Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- When Paul MacMillan, deputy chief of the MBTA transit police, saw roadblocks and heard wailing sirens as his convoy entered the headquarters of the Israeli Border Police on Tuesday, it seemed that a planned emergency drill had begun a day early. But this was no exercise.

MacMillan and 130 other senior US security officials attending a counterterrorism conference in Jerusalem found themselves caught up in an unfolding manhunt for a suspected Palestinian suicide bomber.

An hour later, after a dramatic helicopter and motorcycle chase through police roadblocks on the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, Israeli police told the Americans that the would-be bomber had been captured, with 15 pounds of explosives packed with nails and shrapnel.

The blow-by-blow account of the operation provided a real-time introduction to Israeli security pressures for the participants in the four-day conference, designed to encourage information sharing and expertise between Israeli and US counterterrorism officials. The gathering boasted the largest group of US law enforcement, emergency services, and homeland security officials ever to assemble in Israel.

Other Bay State officials in attendance included Kenneth Kaiser, special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office, and Albert Sherman, vice chancellor of University of Massachusetts Medical School. The largest delegation came from California, including Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, the former police commissioner in Boston, and Joanne M. Hayes-White, chief of the San Francisco Fire Department.

MacMillan said the episode in Jerusalem illustrated how much his job had changed since the Sept. 11 attacks.

''If you told me when I started my career that I would be in Israel learning about emergency preparedness for a terrorist attack, I would have said: 'What are you talking about?' We could never have imagined at the beginning of our police careers that we would be involved in such a situation," he said.

But as the intelligence chief for the fourth-largest transit system in the United States, transporting 1.3 million passengers each day, MacMillan said his responsibility now goes well beyond the traditional problems of robberies and assaults.

''To say that Boston is a specific target, that's not an accurate statement. But they've hit two transit systems, in Madrid and London, and the general intelligence and logic would follow that they're eventually going to try and hit a transit system in the United States. . . . We certainly should prepare for it," he said.

The conference, hosted by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Police, included intelligence briefings, counterterrorism drills, medical exercises, and lectures from security, police, and emergency services officials.

The participants toured police surveillance facilities in Jerusalem's Old City, visited a suicide-bomber exhibition at police headquarters, and observed a simulated biochemical attack on a school, followed by emergency treatment of the victims at the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center.

At Ben-Gurion Airport and the control center for Israel Railways, the officials saw state of the art CCTV facilities with ''behavioral video" -- computer software that triggers an alarm when an unusual incident appears on the monitor.

MacMillan said the MBTA had been studying the installation of behavioral video and, after seeing the Israeli system in action, he would recommend it back home -- one of several tangible results of the trip.

He also said he would recommend cooperation with Israeli police in training Boston's bomb-disposal personnel.

Also under consideration is a training course in Massachusetts run by the Israeli police.

Following an earlier visit to Israel by Robert Smith, head of counterintelligence at the State Police, the Massachusetts command staff already has been through two courses run by senior officials from the Israeli security services.

Assistance has also run in the opposite direction. Sherman, and Dr. Richard Aghababian, chairman of emergency medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, have advised Israeli hospitals on developing emergency medical departments.

After watching a drill simulating an emergency room receiving victims of a large bio-chemical attack on Wednesday, Sherman said the Israelis had come a long way.

''I'm here to observe and learn and bring back to the Department of Public Health how the Israelis, who are regrettably the experts, do it differently to how we do it. In some cases it's better," said Sherman, who also serves on the Public Health Council, which sets public health policy for Massachusetts.

He said the Americans were impressed by what they saw.

''A smart man knows what he doesn't know. These people came to learn. There isn't a single person I've spoken to who doesn't have lots to bring back to their hometown," he said.

White, San Francisco's fire chief, said she found the conference ''truly impressive."

''Our whole world changed after 9/11. It is something that we plan for now, but we have very little expertise in it. To come to a place like this, really you're learning from the true experts," she said.

Conference participants debated the tension between counterterrorist measures and maintaining democracy, a concern that arose when security officials at Ben-Gurion explained that they were allowed to stop any car whose passengers appeared ''suspicious."

''It's a different mind set here. We're not allowed to do that. We have to have a specific plan in place on how we're going to do the stops," MacMillan said.

''It's a balancing act. We have a free and open society. If we want a dictatorship, we can lock down the country and not let anybody in and have government IDs and have everybody checked, but we're not going to live like that," MacMillan said.

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