Officials: State's terrorism deterrence improved

WASHINGTON -- On a lonely road past midnight last month, a Berkeley County sheriff's deputy stopped two Florida college students for speeding in Goose Creek, north of Charleston.

One student was Egyptian, the other from Kuwait. The officer found pipe bombs in the trunk -- fireworks, the young men said.

Within an hour, a state bomb squad had swept in, a robot had searched the car, FBI and other federal agents swarmed the site. The students faced much more serious charges than a speeding ticket.

It will take months to learn whether the men have terrorist ties -- and whether their location near the Naval Weapons Station was just a coincidence.

But state and local officials say that arrest likely would not have happened before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"Pre-9-11, there was no real mechanism to connect the dots," said Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, one of the state government's four regional counterterrorism heads. "Now, you get a little traffic stop in Goose Creek turning into something that has the FBI involved, immigration, customs agents, all kinds of federal authorities.

"We're much more conscious of potential indicators and suspicious indicators that might have a connection to terrorism."

In the six years since the Sept. 11 tragedy, South Carolina has received $86 million from the Homeland Security Department, the massive federal agency Congress created in 2003 to coordinate the nation's efforts to prevent fresh terrorist attacks and respond to manmade or natural disasters.

While officials say state residents are safer than six years ago, security gaps remain at South Carolina's nuclear power plants, at the Charleston port and with obsolete radio equipment that prohibits police and firefighters in some areas from communicating with one another.

State Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart, who Gov. Mark Sanford designated to be South Carolina's lead counter-terrorism official with oversight of all DHS programs, said he now spends one-third to half of his time focused on that post.

"It's like having two jobs," Stewart said.

Stewart is among a handful of people who have access to a secret list of more than 100 sites around the state that South Carolina has told the federal government could be vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Stewart and counterterrorism officials who report to him said the names and locations of the sites are classified and cannot be made public.

"We're continually looking at what we think should be on the Buzzer Zone Protection Plan and other critical sites that need more attention," Stewart said.

Stewart said the sites include dams, big sporting arenas, large shopping centers, nuclear reactors, chemical plants, pipelines, major factories and other major industrial facilities. Other officials cited government buildings, water reserves, electric power plants and generators.

"There were a number of components at locations in the state of South Carolina -- particularly in the Midlands -- that were vulnerable to terrorist attacks or needed more security," Columbia Police Chief Dean Crisp said.

Protecting the public

Randy Webster, Horry County emergency services director, said DHS funds were used to create and train a nationally certified bomb-disposal team for the Grand Strand region.

"A lot of people don't realize that with 13 million tourists annually, there are people who want to target this area for potential terrorist attacks," Webster said.

In Columbia, Stewart oversees the federally funded S.C. Biometric Fusion Center, a computer data-mining operation that seeks criminal patterns in intelligence and other information sent in from across the state.

Like Cannon in the Lowcountry, Crisp is a regional counterterrorism head responsible for the Midlands. Webster oversees the Pee Dee region; Greenville Fire Chief Tommy McDowell represents the Upstate, including York County.

The four men join two dozen other people on the S.C. Counterterrorism Advisory Council, which reports to Stewart, helps set policy, tracks application for DHS grants and distributes the federal money. Its members come from a broad range of fire and police departments, universities and colleges, EMS services and public health agencies in South Carolina.

Columbia is one of a very few similarly sized cities in the country to create its own Homeland Security Department. Led by Harold Reaves, it has a $1.6 million budget -- money paid by the city that is separate from DHS funding.

Reaves oversees a staff of 50, including 32 "community safety officers" who carry no weapons but wear their own uniforms, patrol the capital's neighborhoods and report suspicious activity to city police.

Some gaps exist

State and local counterterrorism officials said emphatically that South Carolinians are better protected against terrorism than they were before Sept. 11. At the same time, government officials and outside analysts acknowledge there are still counter-terrorism gaps.

Security at South Carolina's seven commercial nuclear reactors, like the country's other 97 reactors, is not covered by DHS funds, but rather by the private utilities that own or run them.

Despite providing more than half the state's electricity, the seven S.C. reactors are guarded by private security guards who are prohibited from carrying automatic weapons.

The Sept. 11 commission set up by Congress found that Osama bin Laden and his top al-Qaida aides had weighed crashing jumbo jets into nuclear power plants. But earlier this year, the NRC rejected a proposal to require that new nuclear reactors be designed to withstand the impact of large planes.

Craig Ferguson, a nuclear engineer who has written extensively on reactor security, said South Carolina's plants are more vulnerable than others because it borders the Atlantic Ocean.

"You could have attacks from the sea," said Ferguson, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Even a fishing trawler or other small boat could fire a cruise missile."

The 9/11 commission cited as an urgent nationwide problem the inability of disaster agencies to communicate with one another. South Carolina has joined other states in investing significant DHS funds in radio systems and related equipment enabling its hundreds of local fire, police, EMS and other disaster-related agencies to talk during a crisis.

McDowell, the Greenville fire chief, said significant communications problems remain.

"There are still a lot of towns and communities where the local fire department cannot talk over voice radio communications to their police department," he said. "We're still trying to crack that nut."