Agencies craft policies for dealing with ‘severe’ terror threat

Federal executives across the country are developing policies to help them decide when to close federal offices and how best to protect their employees if the nation's threat level is raised to red, indicating a "severe" risk of terrorist attacks.

The Homeland Security Department could issue a red alert for a specific region, or even a specific building, according to several federal officials. "The information would have to be very imminent, specific, and credible," department spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Monday. Johndroe added that there are no plans to raise the terror threat level. The nation currently faces a "high" risk of possible terrorist attacks, which is orange on the color-coded terrorism alert system.

Last week, the Federal Protective Service, (FPS), the Homeland Security agency that protects federal buildings, issued a policy clarifying how federal facilities would respond if the terror threat level were raised to red. In a code red scenario, federal offices would not necessarily close, but agency heads would work with the Federal Protective Service to keep employees safe, according to Chris Bentley, a spokesman with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which includes FPS.

"When the alert level goes from orange to red, that doesn't necessarily close the federal buildings in one fell swoop," he said. "On a location by location basis they'll look at all the information they have about a threat and act accordingly."

Although agency heads would have the final say over whether to stay open in this scenario, FPS would be the lead agency for deciding how to proceed, Bentley said. "FPS is responsible for the security of the actual building, so yes they would be the lead in that situation," he said.

But some federal leaders already have decided to close shop if the threat level is raised to red. In Minnesota, a code red would prompt some closures, according to Ray Morris, executive director of the Minnesota Federal Executive Board. "A number of those agencies would interpret a red level threat as a closure situation," he said.

Other federal officials said they would follow the lead of FPS. "We'll look to them for guidance," said Susanne Valdez, executive director of the St. Louis Federal Executive Board. In Oregon, federal agencies would work with FPS and the FBI to determine the best course of action, according to Ron Johnson, executive director of the Portland Federal Executive Board.

In Washington, the Office of Personnel Management determines the government's operating status in potential terrorism situations after consulting the Federal Emergency Management Agency and General Services Administration. But here, as in other regions, agency heads decide whether to close their facilities, according to OPM spokesman Scott Hatch.

"Every agency has jurisdiction over their employees," he said, adding agencies typically notify OPM when they close.

Officials cautioned that closure decisions would be guided by the nature of the threat. Many agencies are prepared to keep their employees inside in the event of a chemical or radiological attack. "It would be a much greater risk to shut down federal offices in the area and send employees out where they could be contaminated," said Gladean Butler, executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth Federal Executive Board. "The smarter decision would be to keep employees inside the building on lockdown," Butler said.

Recent anti-war protests in major U.S. cities have forced some federal executives to decide whether to close facilities. On Friday, employees at Chicago's One Federal Center complex were sent home early because of protests, according to OPM's Hatch.

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