Homeland security papers offer glimpse of California threats
SACRAMENTO (AP) – Homeland security files opened for review Thursday showed California officials have grappled with bomb threats, suspicious passengers on airplanes, security breaches at oil refineries and dozens of other incidents in recent months.
The daily briefings came under fire last week for including lists of political protests. The documents reviewed Thursday painted a picture of both vague and specific threats that California police officers and intelligence agencies have contended with since February, when the state hired a consultant to begin collecting the information.
The briefings were opened to reporters in response to a Los Angeles Times story last week but appeared to confirm homeland security officials’ contention that the agency does not actively monitor political groups. Reporters viewed the daily briefings in two-hour increments but were not allowed to copy or photograph them.
“Homeland security has never monitored a political rally,” said Chris Bertelli, deputy director of California’s Office of Homeland Security. “That’s not what we do. We don’t have investigators; we have analysts.”
The briefings did, however, include other troubling details:
There was a bomb threat to the Bay Bridge in March, and one to a Greyhound bus in Bakersfield in April. Agencies have recorded multiple reports of individuals taking photographs of a nuclear facility in San Clemente and of an oil refinery in the San Francisco Bay area town of Rodeo. Security guards also found a hole cut in a fence at an oil refinery in Martinez.
In perhaps the most intriguing entry, one of the daily security briefings in April cited a redacted FBI report titled “Hizballah busted in Mexican smuggling operation.”
Homeland security officials and an FBI spokeswoman declined to comment on the reference to the Lebanon-based terrorist group and said they could not confirm if members of the group were apprehended on the Mexican border.
“Obviously we are made aware of a variety of threats and, along with our law enforcement partners, we work to share that information and analyze those threats so we can inform whoever needs to know, including the public,” Bertelli said. “What I would like people to understand from this is that the process is working. Threats in California are quickly analyzed and processed.”
The reports showed that foreign nationals have at times been refused entry almost daily at Los Angeles International Airport for unspecified reasons. Residents of Jordan, Libya, Morocco, El Salvador, China and Costa Rica were among those turned away.
The state also logged at least four domestic flights since February in which crew members or federal air marshals reported suspicious passengers. The briefings also included references to an undefined air space violation, confiscated counterfeit visas and 7,000 pounds of stolen fertilizer, which can be used as a bomb-making material, in Contra Costa County.
Randall Larsen, director of the Institute for Homeland Security in Washington, said the public should not be surprised by the volume of threats the state has received.
“I support the state shining a little sunshine on this process,” he said. “But you have to remember this is raw data, and in the intelligence world people care about rumor and innuendo, which some of this surely is.”
The daily briefings were compiled by SRA International, which has a $4 million contract with the state to provide counterterrorism analysis. The contract could be extended past 2006, for a total cost of $16 million.
The company’s analysis of each reported incident and its comments on news clippings included in each day’s briefing were redacted.
Two reports included lists of political protests – one in March marking the anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq and the other in April, which coincided with immigration hearings on Capitol Hill. They contained information mostly gleaned from newspaper clippings and appeared to be isolated incidents.
Bertelli said that while it could be helpful for law enforcement to be aware of such large groups for security reasons, the Office of Homeland Security ordered SRA International to stop including references to political rallies after the April report to prevent the appearance of wrongdoing.
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