Getting in Step

DHS agencies carefully choreographed a response to terrorist threats on New Year's.


n the night of Jan. 1, Homeland Security officials received troubling intelligence about British Airways Flight 216. Just minutes before the Washington-to-London flight was scheduled to depart Dulles International Airport, Jim Schear, a Transportation Security Administration official, scrambled to the gate and ordered everyone off the plane. More than 30 security personnel from four federal agencies joined him. With military precision, they interviewed certain passengers, combed through all luggage and cargo, and gave the cabin a once-over for hidden weapons, pulling up seat cushions and checking storage bins. "It was a wonderful choreography," says a senior Homeland Security Department official.

Less than 24 hours earlier, the same agencies appeared to be tripping over each other. When a British Airways flight landed at Dulles on New Year's Eve, confusion over how to secure the flight caused an hours-long delay in letting passengers off the plane. But by the next day, officials had hammered out a method for securing such flights. "There were some flights that did not go as well, but those were the early ones," says the official.

From late December 2003 into January 2004, federal officials carried out extraordinary security measures designed to prevent al Qaeda terrorists from using international flights to attack U.S. targets. The most visible step was to cancel flights, but the scope of federal security efforts was much broader than what the public saw, says Michael Dougherty, director of operations at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has said the measures likely thwarted a terrorist attack.

The successful response to the holiday threats was the fruit of a painstaking melding of disparate agencies that has been going on at the Homeland Security Department since it came together in January 2003. The response also marked a new level of coordination between Homeland Security agencies and outside partners such as the FBI. During the rapid unloading of the New Year's Day flight, agencies acted as a joint force, with ICE and the FBI interviewing passengers, and TSA checking luggage with help from Homeland Security's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, which shared its hand-held radiation detectors. Longtime observers marvel at the teamwork. "To be blunt, I'm impressed," says retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former White House drug czar in the Clinton administration and an outspoken critic of poor coordination among border agencies.

While joint security checks unfolded at airports, a separate corps of analysts teamed up to scrutinize airline passenger manifests. Shortly before Christmas, FBI and Homeland Security officials met at FBI headquarters in Washington to cobble together a joint vetting process: Passenger names were checked not only against terrorist watch lists, which are handled by the National Targeting Center, a CBP unit, but also against ICE databases and FBI case files, which contain more extensive information. "The big change was that every single name was being run through these databases," says an ICE official involved in the process.

The checks focused on certain U.S.-bound flights originating in Mexico, France and Great Britain. For each flight, U.S. officials sent a list of suspect passengers to foreign law enforcement officials who interviewed the passengers before departure. The process hinged on getting final manifests an hour before takeoff; if names came in any later, as they often did, the operation was delayed. "We got one manifest an hour and 20 minutes after the flight was supposed to leave," says Gary Bald, assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division.

With three agencies vetting, flight delays were common. Foreign airlines canceled some U.S.-bound flights because of the lengthy clearance process. At Dulles, TSA's Schear and his interagency team would secure an outbound international flight, only to see it sit at the gate while analysts continued their checks. "When the planes are buttoned up and ready to go, you like to see the flight moving," says Schear. "But you have to make sure you're comfortable with the people on board."

The FBI's process was especially painstaking. Running passenger names through the agency's case files often generated hundreds of "hits," or potential matches, which had to be checked by FBI analysts. One flight returned 13,000 hits. "We had an analyst reviewing every one of those," says Bald. "The names could be in the middle of a long document, so an analyst has to review three or four paragraphs to understand who the person was, and whether they were identical to the person getting on the plane." As a result, the FBI consistently took the longest to clear manifests, although Bald says analysts finished their checks within two hours. "They knew there [were] passengers sitting on the ground, pissed off, waiting for them," he says.

Homeland Security relied on a web of officials on three continents to respond to the quickly shifting threats. Federal air marshal teams in London, Paris and Mexico City ensured that certain U.S.-bound international flights had foreign air marshals on board. In Washington, DHS activated the interagency incident management group for the first time so that 20 outside agencies could weigh in. For example, Transportation Department officials offered suggestions on how to engage foreign airlines on security issues. The National Security Council and intelligence community also monitored the holiday threats.

The heightened alert provided Homeland Security agencies with an opportunity to work as a joint force. For complex operations involving several agencies-such as the flights at Dulles-the department sometimes picked a single agency to act as a coordinator. TSA took the lead for a few flights at Dulles, while ICE was tapped to coordinate vetting of manifests, in part because of its ties to the FBI. These designations were accepted without protest. "I think we made a breakthrough here in that everyone realized that somebody had to be the coordinator for these incidents," says the senior Homeland Security official. "You didn't hear any stories about fights among DHS people in the midst of these pretty contentious actions that were taken." The seeds of this coordination are contained in a series of small, subtle management steps taken during the department's first year.


When the department first opened its doors, officials weren't expecting TSA, ICE and CBP to operate jointly. Department leaders had their hands full planning Operation Liberty Shield, a series of measures to safeguard the United States during the Iraq war. Planning was a joint exercise. "We had representatives from the vice president's office down to the smallest federal agency in the room," remembers one official. But most of the actions taken required little collaboration.

Few of the DHS agencies had much experience at joint operations. "Initially, the only way to link all of our agencies up was to take a person from each organization and put them in the same room," says an official in the department's Border and Transportation Security directorate. With jurisdiction over three of the largest homeland security agencies-ICE, CBP and TSA-the directorate is a hub for operations. Over the past year, a small staff under Asa Hutchinson, DHS undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security, has been instrumental in forging ties between border agencies and other homeland security agencies.

One of the directorate's first creations was a daily operations report, a restricted document that highlights key security incidents such as a large influx of Pakistani nationals at a certain port of entry or progress in an ICE investigation. At first, agencies were reluctant to divulge such information. "None of the agencies were used to sharing stuff like this," says the BTS official. The report provides a common picture of events along the border and at U.S. airports, complete with a two-page glossary to help agencies decipher each other's lingo. It also facilitates after-action reviews of security operations.

As an example, officials point to an incident last fall when a person on a no-fly list was allowed on a plane. The person-who was not a terrorist, officials emphasize-was questioned by agents from TSA, CBP and ICE, but no one prevented him from boarding. "The bad news was that this happened," says the senior Homeland Security official. "The good news is at least we knew it happened. Now we're able to go back and fix these things." Officials scour the reports for cases of agencies working solo instead of reaching out to their sister agencies. "I want everyone to play," says the directorate official.

Directorate officials have helped resolve long-standing disputes among the border agencies. Last spring, after a few directorate-brokered meetings, CBP and the Coast Guard agreed to share data about ships' cargo, aiding port inspections. More recently, the directorate convened discussions between the Border Patrol and the Interior Department to bolster immigration enforcement in federal parks. Now, Interior is allowing Border Patrol agents to safeguard the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, a 118,000-acre preserve along the U.S.-Mexico border. Other disputes have been harder to resolve. One source recalls a tense meeting between CBP and TSA officials over sharing passenger data. "We had very senior people from the agencies in the room, and they almost came to fisticuffs," says the source, who adds the agencies are now on the same page.

The directorate has helped its agents tap into the resources of intelligence agencies. One example: TSA's master cockpit crew list, a tally of pilots and other crew members from certain foreign countries. Last May, the directorate fed the list to intelligence agencies, whose staffers vetted it against several terrorism watch lists that TSA didn't have. The checks yielded 28 crew members who no longer will be allowed on U.S.-bound flights.

Last summer, the directorate helped coordinate a response to intelligence that indicated al Qaeda was targeting U.S. aviation. Some CBP officials regarded the Transit Without Visa program, which allowed designated foreigners to fly into the country without visas, as a potential vulnerability. So in July, directorate officials briefed intelligence agencies on the transit program and asked for a formal threat assessment. The program was suspended Aug. 2.


Efforts to improve coordination are taking root at DHS. Since mid-January, about 50 staffers in Secretary Ridge's office have been working to link its five directorates. "The secretary wanted a horizontal integration mechanism across the department to do operational planning, exercises, senior-level training, strategic planning, so they're focused on that," says Robert Stephan, a special assistant to Ridge.

The department eschewed a military-style command-and-control system, opting instead for coordination. "You can't be heavy-handed because there are a lot of interagency equities here," says the senior Homeland Security official. As a result, agencies had to integrate in the field to pull off fast-moving operations. TSA's Schear and his colleagues at Dulles constantly shared intelligence. "Whenever we gathered at a flight of interest, the ICE, FBI and TSA people would all sit down and say, 'You got anything through your chain of command that we should know about?'" says Schear. "We all compared notes. . . . It was very effective." But at other airports, agencies didn't wait to share information and wound up duplicating efforts. "If TSA had the information, they ran with it. It all depended on what agency got the information first," says an ICE agent involved in the operations.

The Border and Transportation Security directorate picked a coordinator in the hope of preventing such overlap. The designation was informal. "I hesitate to say anybody was the lead agency," says Schear, who was the coordinator for the New Year's Day flight and has since moved on to the Federal Aviation Administration. A more formal declaration-an order putting TSA in charge of all airport incidents, for example-could have upset the balance among agencies involved.

Other departmental efforts to unify operations have sparked concern among employees. They fret that an ongoing initiative to create a regional field structure and appoint regional homeland security directors could impinge on their operational authority. ICE special-agents-in-charge, for instance, work directly for their headquarters in Washington. Putting a regional director between Washington and the field could disrupt investigations, some worry. But Homeland Security's Stephan says the new structure should not impede daily operations. Legal issues complicate giving the day-to-day line responsibility to a regional official, he says, but such problems don't apply to giving authority to an official on a temporary or crisis basis.

Down the road, the department may be more willing to select coordinators to manage particular incidents. Officials believe the concept worked well during the holiday operations. By mid-January, Schear's Dulles team was able to secure departing flights in less than hour. "It became a thing of beauty," he says.

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