Las Vegas: Preparedness on America’s Playground

It was one of the largest New Year’s Eve celebrations in the country. More than 300,000 people jammed the LasVegas Strip, some spilling out of the casinos and into the streets justminutes before midnight to catch a magnificent $500,000 fireworksdisplay—a show coordinated to music and executed from atop the roofs of10 Strip hotels.

Three hours earlier, the Fox network taped“America’s Party” at The Venetian in front of a packed crowd. And after2004 rolled in and couples sealed it with a kiss, most of the revelersheaded to nightclubs, where the parties had yet to start.

The celebration occurred under the watchful eyes of an unprecedented security force.

A week earlier, federal officials hadpublicly expressed worries that terrorists might be planning to hijackan Air France flight from Paris to Los Angeles and crash it in LasVegas. Several of those flights were canceled, and media outletsreported that a high terror alert was linked to the city. Las Vegaslaw-enforcement officials denied the claims, but were not rolling thedice on this one.

Commercial aircraft were banned from flyingwithin a 23-mile radius around McCarran International Airport, andarmed military helicopters buzzed the Strip throughout the night.National Guard soldiers patrolled the airport and Hoover Dam carryingrifles, while police sharpshooters were perched atop the resorts.

On the ground, authorities mounted thelargest force ever assigned to the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration.In an effort to choke off potential car-bombers, concrete barriers andpolice vehicles blocked off access to the entire area. Two 24-footportable observation towers were set up at key locations to monitor thecrowd, and more than 2,500 police officers on foot, motorcycle andhorseback joined the more than 5,000 hotel security personnel and theFBI, which called in extra agents from around the country to secure theevent.

The future

Next year should see an even more massivecelebration—it’s the centennial of America’s playground. There will bea massive kickoff on New Year’s Eve and a calendar year full of plannedevents.

But even on an everyday basis, security in Las Vegas is already tighter.

With 18 of the nation’s 20 largest hotels andits reputation as a tourist playground attracting 36 million visitorsannually, some fear Las Vegas remains an attractive terrorist target.The city recently was named a “second-tier” target by the Department ofHomeland Security (DHS), and because of its status Nevada received moreanti-terrorism dollars from the federal government.

“We are very mindful of the security needs inLas Vegas,” Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson said in aMarch 20 newspaper report published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Las Vegas to the world is a symbol of one side of America … flashy, entertainment, fun.”

In April, Homeland Security Secretary TomRidge visited Las Vegas to deliver nearly $37 million in federalgrants, of which $10.7 million was earmarked for use in Las Vegas andsurrounding Clark County. According to Nevada Division of EmergencyManagement officials, the city’s most pressing needs include newemergency vehicles, networked radio and computer systems, upgradedemergency protective gear and biological detection devices, and trainedfirst responders.

Ridge also promised that by the end of theyear some Las Vegas officers will have access to the new HomelandSecurity Information Network, a database containing informationallowing law-enforcement officers to spot trends related to terrorthreats.

Communications and funding

Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and John Ensign(R-Nev.) helped secure $10.5 million last November, on top of thestate’s $26 million annual allotment due to its high-threat status, butthey say Nevada still needs more money to upgrade its communicationssystem. In a May 6 letter addressed to Ridge, the senators explainedthe unique nature of Las Vegas in protecting not only Nevadans but alsothe “nearly 300,000 short-term residents.”

“Ensuring the safety of these visitors andLas Vegas residents is a priority for Clark County’s law-enforcementand emergency responder community,” the letter said. “Las Vegas, likemany communities throughout the country, does not have a communicationsystem that allows for adequate contact between disparate agencies suchas fire and police services. Tragically, the response to the terroristattacks of Sept. 11 demonstrated that interoperable communicationsystems are crucial to saving the lives of emergency responders and thepeople they are working to protect.”

Jerry Bussell, who served as Nevada Gov.Kenny Guinn’s homeland security advisor and headed the NevadaCommission on Homeland Security from November 2002 until hisresignation under fire on May 28, made the radio issue his number-onepriority.

“It’s a critical need,” Bussell told HSTodayin an interview. “There needs to be a plan to bring connectivity andconsistency, a way for them all to communicate with each other moreeasily.”

The cost of a new radio system is estimatedto be around $40 million. An integrated system would allow differentemergency responders to communicate during a crisis. State politicianshave made it a priority as well, setting a July 2005 deadline to havethe new system up and running.

Bussell also worked to correct what he saw asa major problem—federal counterterrorism funds within the state wereallotted based on population, not need and threat level. And althoughClark County is Nevada’s most populated area, it still received onlyone-third of the first $6.7 million the state received from DHS.Bussell said the county, under a new threat-based formula, now receives73 percent of the state’s allotment.

“There are needs other than Clark County, butyou need to put your resources where there’s a threat. And if 95percent of your threat is in southern Nevada, that’s where the moneyshould go,” Bussell said.

Beyond fixing radio communications, Bussellsaid Nevada should focus on acquiring equipment, training andintelligence gathering.

“More money needs to be put into prevention,”Bussell said. “We need to get into the circle before something happens.All the money is going to response. The intelligence-sharing has to runfurther down the line.”

Clark County Sheriff Bill Young has saidpublicly that he’d like to see funds used to update cyberterrorismprevention measures, as well. Young is also making efforts to increasehis intelligence staff; he has added more patrol officers along theStrip for the summer tourism season and is pushing for a Novemberballot initiative asking voters whether they’ll support aone-quarter-percent increase in the state sales tax so the departmentcan hire new officers. The referendum results, however, are non-binding.

Preparedness

Nevada is currently training a 22-member teamof National Guardsmen to serve as the state’s Weapons of MassDestruction Response Team. It will take up to two years to fully trainthe team, which will respond to any threat involving biological,chemical or radioactive materials.

Las Vegas officials view hotel and casinoemployees, in-house security and taxi drivers as their first line ofdefense, although some officials worry that they need additionaltraining to be effective. Some cab companies have told their drivers tobe alert and have placed wanted posters in their taxis. The reason forall this is simple: Las Vegas has a history of attracting criminals onthe lam.

The Las Vegas FBI’s Criminal ApprehensionTeam is among the most active in the country, averaging 30 to 40fugitive arrests per month, and has made more than 6,500 arrests since1992, including many in high-profile cases. The most recent was theMarch arrest of suspected Ohio sniper Charles McCoy Jr.

But Las Vegas also has been linked toterrorism. In late 1999, an Algerian national had plans to visit LasVegas prior to the millennium celebrations, but disappeared after hisflight was canceled. The man was arrested a few months later and jailedon terrorism charges in Algeria. Authorities indicate he had close tiesto another man who was arrested crossing into the United States fromCanada with explosives in the trunk of his car and plans to blow up LosAngeles International Airport during New Year’s celebrations there.

Federal investigators have also traced fiveof the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 attack to Las Vegas, sayingthe men made a total of six trips to the city between May and August2001.

Most recently, in April 2003, testimonysurfaced in the Detroit trial of four men suspected of being members ofa terrorist sleeper cell indicating that the group had plans to attackLas Vegas—a city one government witness referred to as the “city ofSatan.” Federal agents, however, dismissed the threat as not credible.

But news of the testimony did cause somecontroversy when Young, the Clark County sheriff, read of the intendedattack in a newspaper account of the trial, but received no warningfrom the FBI. He criticized the agency for not informing local lawenforcement of the plot, but backed off after he learned details of theso-called plan, agreeing with government investigators that it had nocredibility.

Bussell said communications between federalinvestigators and local agencies have improved since then and, overall,he believes Nevada has made giant strides in securing not onlyresidents but also the millions of tourists who visit each year.

But Bussell had troubles of his own. AVietnam veteran who served 26 years in the US Army and a retiredcolonel from the Nevada National Guard, Bussell, following hisresignation, was accused of acting inappropriately by trying to securea government contract worth about $40 million for emergency radioequipment from a company represented by a close lobbyist friend, JimEndres, who is employed at Bussell’s wife’s law firm. Bussell deniedthe allegations to HSToday and said he resigned to work in the private sector. The governor’s office has denied the allegations, as well.

George Togliatti, a 23-year veteran of the FBI stepped in to fill Bussell’s post.

For all the turmoil in the state’s homelandsecurity office, improvements have been made. And it’s hard to disagreewith Bussell’s basic analysis: “We’re a lot safer today than when westarted,” he said.

Ryan Slattery is a Las Vegas-based freelance journalist. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe and Washington Post.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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