Con­nect­ing the dots to thwart travel ter­ror­ists

At Va. com­mand cen­ter, nine agen­cies co­or­di­nate ac­tions against threats

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY ASHLEY HALSEY III

They might be called cri­sis man­agers, but as much as any­thing, the job of the peo­ple clus­tered in the win­dow­less room filled with big-screen TVs and com­put­ers is to see if the dots con­nect.

A man car­ry­ing a gun gets caught try­ing to board a plane in Hous­ton. A woman with a gun is stopped in the At­lanta air­port. Both had tick­ets to fly into Wash­ing­ton’s Rea­gan Na­tional Air­port at about the same time. Co­in­ci­dence, or a ter­ror­ist plot?

A gun­man starts shoot­ing at Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port. Is he act­ing alone, or has an armed ac­com­plice al­ready slipped through se­cu­rity to board a plane?

A woman with con­nec­tions to ter­ror­ists, but not enough to make the no-fly list, is on a plane from Qatar to Brus­sels. Is she a tourist, a courier or a threat?

Were it not for the tall chain­link fence and post-9/11 steel bar­ri­ers that pop up to block driv­ers un­til they’re cleared by the armed guards, the bland low-slung build­ing in North­ern Vir­ginia would look just like any other in the sub­ur­ban melange of of­fice build­ings and ware­houses.

It hardly looks like one of the epi­cen­ters of the global ef­fort against ter­ror­ism. But a stark

mon­u­ment just in­side the doors of the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Op­er­a­tions Cen­ter (TSOC) is a re­minder of what the place is all about.

A twisted steel beam from New York’s World Trade Cen­ter. Rub­ble from a shat­tered Pen­tagon. A frag­ment of me­tal from United Air­lines Flight 93 that crashed near Shanksville, Pa., af­ter pas­sen­gers rushed the 9/11 hi­jack­ers.

Be­yond that, through a card-key-coded door, the dimly lit cen­ter un­folds. It’s staffed 24-7 by peo­ple from nine fed­eral agen­cies, in­clud­ing the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, FBI, Se­cret Ser­vice, Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, Coast Guard, Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion and the North Amer­i­can Aero­space De­fense Com­mand (NORAD).

The job of those who sit at close to 200 com­put­ers grouped in task-spe­cific pods across the floor is to mon­i­tor the 8,000 flights in the air above the United States at any given mo­ment, watch for bor­der in­cur­sions by land and sea, and track what’s hap­pen­ing at air­ports, rail­way sta­tions, bus de­pots, high­ways and ev­ery other means by which peo­ple get from place to place.

The 13 peo­ple on av­er­age who carry guns into air­ports each day get re­ported here. So do those who show up at air­port check­points with bot­tles of liq­uid larg- er than the 3.4-ounce limit. In one cor­ner of the room, a team mon­i­tors cy­ber­at­tacks on the TSA com­puter sys­tem.

Three huge radar dis­plays play on gi­ant wall-mounted screens, ca­pa­ble of zoom­ing in to see Wash­ing­ton’s airspace or some other city’s, and then zoom­ing out to cap­ture a re­gion or the en­tire na­tion. At least two dozen other screens dis­play other data or all of the net­work news pro­grams.

The goal of all the agen­cies in the room is to share in­for­ma­tion and co­or­di­nate ac­tion, con­nect­ing the dots or de­ter­min­ing there is no mean­ing­ful link be­tween them.

“We want to know, is that same [type of ] thing hap­pen­ing in Las Ve­gas, or Wash­ing­ton, D.C., or San An­to­nio?” said Rod Allison, TSA’s as­sis­tant ad­min­is­tra­tor for law en­force­ment and di­rec­tor of the Fed­eral Air Mar­shal Ser­vice. “Even if [an in­ci­dent] is rou­tine, we want to make sure noth­ing is go­ing on sys­temwide.”

Peo­ple in the TSOC re­ceived about 7,800 re­ports a week from op­er­a­tives in the field about a wide va­ri­ety of move­ments and in­ci­dents, about 70 per­cent of them in­volv­ing avi­a­tion.

Then there are days when a trans­porta­tion cri­sis hits, such as a gy­ro­copter land­ing in front of the U.S. Capi­tol in April or the 2013 shoot­ing of a TSA se­cu­rity of­fi­cer at the Los An­ge­les air­port.

When that hap­pens, the TSA ad­min­is­tra­tor ap­points a cri­sis man­ager, and six top agency co­or­di­na­tors and their staff file through a door­way into an enor­mous con­fer­ence room.

The mid­dle con­sole of a con­fer­ence ta­ble that seats 24 peo­ple rises to present each man­ager with a com­puter screen, and staff mem­bers mon­i­tor com­put­ers that line the wall. The TSA ad­min­is­tra­tor is linked in by live video from his sev­enth-floor con­fer­ence room sev­eral miles away at TSA head­quar­ters in Ar­ling­ton, and a sec­ond live feed is piped in from the scene of the in­ci­dent.

An ex­am­ple came on Christ­mas 2009, when Allison picked up the TSOC phone to hear a re­port of a pi­lot whose plane had smoke in the cabin as he pre­pared to land a flight from Am­s­ter­dam in Detroit.

“The next re­port came in and it said it sounded like fire­works were go­ing off in the back of the plane,” Allison re­called.

By the time the flight reached the gate to be greeted by po­lice, the re­spon­si­ble party had been sub­dued and his name, which ap­peared on the pas­sen­ger man­i­fest, had been run through the TSOC com­puter.

“That’s when he ver­bal­ized that he had a bomb,” Allison said.

Umar Farouk Ab­dul­mu­tal­lab, then 23, came to be known as the “Un­der­wear Bomber.” He had plas­tic ex­plo­sives hid­den in his un­der­wear. When al-Qaeda-trained Ab­dul­mu­tal­lab tried to trig­ger the bomb there were pop­ping sounds and his pants caught fire, but the an­tic­i­pated ex­plo­sion never hap­pened.

Only af­ter flight at­ten­dants used fire ex­tin­guish­ers to put out the blaze and took Ab­dul­mu­tal­lab to the front of the plane did he re­veal he was car­ry­ing a bomb.

Work­ing with the FAA rep­re­sen­ta­tive at TSOC, the best avail­able in­for­ma­tion was put out to ev­ery com­mer­cial air­craft in the air, mind­ful of the fact than on 9/11, ter­ror­ists struck four dif­fer­ent planes on the same day, in a co­or­di­nated at­tack.

“We pro­vided some in­struc­tion as to what they should do, mean­ing telling ev­ery­body to stay in their seats and putting on the seat-belt signs,” Allison said.

Smoke in a cabin isn’t an ev­ery­day oc­cur­rence in-flight, but Allison said it hap­pens of­ten enough, and even at its most in­nocu­ous, smoke needs to be re­ported to TSOC.

“That’s why you’ve got to get all th­ese things re­ported, be­cause some­thing as un­usual as smoke in the cabin turned out to be an at­tack,” he said. “You can’t just dis­miss th­ese things.”


John Chenoweth works the sur­face trans­porta­tion desk at the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Op­er­a­tions Cen­ter in North­ern Vir­ginia. The cen­ter re­ceives about 7,800 re­ports per week.

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