War puts homeland on heightened alert | TahoeDailyTribune.com

War puts homeland on heightened alert

William Ferchland, Tahoe Daily Tribune

As missiles are fired and triggers pulled in Iraq, authorities in El Dorado County are stepping up efforts to diffuse and react to any threats from terrorists.

FBI Special Agent Michael Mason said the agency will be conducting interviews with at least 100 Iraqis to gather information on possible terrorists acts.

Mason, in charge of the FBI Sacramento office which covers 34 counties, addressed a group of reporters Thursday morning.

Besides the interviews, which are voluntary for those being questioned, the 24-hour office command post was activated so agents can keep in contact with the state’s Office of Emergency Services.

Leaves for agents have been suspended and shifts have been altered to “increase our preparedness,” Mason said.

The bulk of the speech focused on the department’s interviews with Iraqi persons living in the United States. Mason cautioned that only recent Iraqi arrivals in the past five years will be questioned because they may have information about the current Iraqi regime. Civil rights will be protected, Mason said.

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“People with family in Iraq may know about efforts by the Iraqi regime to turn certain neighborhoods into traps for U.S. troops,” Mason said.

Special Agent Nick Rossi said the list does not include any people in South Lake Tahoe. About 20 listed people are in the greater Sacramento area, which includes parts of El Dorado County, he said.

Rossi said the FBI has contacted major businesses as well as the operators of infrastructure including bridges, dams and hydroelectric facilities. Even though the facilities have a low probability for a terrorist attack, El Dorado County Sheriff Jeff Neves has increased patrol in those areas.

Neves, who as sheriff is the incident commander for the emergency operating center, is the lone county authority to approve needed resources if there is an attack or if mutual aid requested.

If an incident occurs at Stateline, Neves said preparations would be similar to the New Year’s Eve celebration, where thousands of revelers gather in the casino corridor.

Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierni said his department has been training since Sept. 11, 2001, and the office has improved its communications. Cellular phones attached to a satellite system have increased reception for deputies in Douglas County, which is sliced by the Sierras.

Authorities indicated if the national alert level raised to severe — it is currently at high — no immediate action would be taken unless it was a specific threat or incident nearby.

Police patrol has increased at places where an attack might be made, but South Lake Tahoe Police Sgt. Alex Schumacher declined to cite specific areas.

Schumacher said if an emergency were to happen, all the department’s sworn officers would be called to duty.

Most interviewed said El Dorado County is likely low on the list for terrorists who desire high casualties in dense areas, such as the World Trade Center buildings and busy nightclubs at large resorts. But authorities have not let that deter them from preparing for the worst.

“Whatever needs to be done will get done,” Schumacher said.

— Maggie O’Neill contributed to this article. E-mail William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com