The alert came at 10:17 a.m. on a sultry summer morning on the Mississippi. A crop duster circled four times over the river near Natchez, Miss., sending clouds of dark powder down on the tugboat and barges below. The tugboat operator, alarmed, jotted down the plane's identifying numbers and called the Coast Guard: What was going on?
Within minutes, a Coast Guard supervisor in Baton Rouge, La., messaged the Homeland Security Operations Center in Washington, using a secure and encrypted network set up to report suspicious activity. Fearful of a possible chemical or biological attack, the center's director, retired Marine Brig. Gen. Matthew E. Broderick, called the White House Situation Room, then notified the FBI, the Transportation Department, the Department of Health and Human Services and several other agencies.
Personnel are required to put communication devices such as cell phones into locked boxes before entering the operations center.
Inside Homeland Security: The Post's Sari Horowitz describes a day inside the nation's year-old Homeland Security Operations Center.
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The crews on the boats were monitored for symptoms of poisoning, but none developed. Meanwhile, a deputy sheriff tracked down the pilot. It turned out that he had been drinking and doing drugs and was flying out of control. "We arrested him," Broderick said simply. "The guy was just a drunk."
It was another day, another false alarm for the nation's year-old Homeland Security Operations Center. In a brick complex five miles from downtown Washington, representatives from a multitude of agencies prepare for the day when a tip turns out to be real, signaling another terrorist attack on the United States.
Broderick has one major mission: Try to connect the dots in time to prevent catastrophe. One day last month, for the first time, he allowed a reporter to shadow him through a day.
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At 7:30 a.m., after a five-mile run around his Annandale neighborhood, Broderick arrived at a squat brick building near Ward Circle, across from American University in Northwest Washington. A no-nonsense Irishman from Worcester, Mass., with thinning red hair, a square jaw and solid build, he looks every bit the Marine he was for 30 years, including tours of duty in Vietnam and Somalia. Nowadays, he fights a different kind of war in a different kind of place.
As he strode to his office in the heavily guarded campus that houses the Homeland Security Department, he passed signs pointing to "Cryptologic Court" and "Intelligence Way," named during World War II, when Navy cryptologists working at the campus tried to break German codes. He stopped to deposit his cell phone in a locker at the entrance; no one is allowed to bring communications devices inside.
This morning, he learned in his first briefing of the day, agents were closely tracking three reports that a few years ago would not have solicited more than a raised eyebrow in Washington. Broderick quickly scanned them:
In Miami, a man tried to board an airplane with a bizarre, handmade contraption, a vacuum cleaner hose taped to tin cans and air filters. Federal agents confiscated the hose, worried that it could be used as a lethal device. The man was stopped from boarding and was being questioned. Meanwhile, a digital photo of the device was being studied by a DHS engineer.
Customs agents and Border Patrol officers were investigating a "tool" sold overseas -- Broderick would not be more specific -- that they feared could be used as a weapon.
In a northeastern city that Broderick would not name, police and federal agents were working a tip that several empty suitcases had been left in bus terminals and other areas.
At the same time Broderick learned of those and other, classified, developments, one of his staff members was in the White House Situation Room briefing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who in turn would brief President Bush on the most important items.
The center is critical to the government's efforts to address an issue raised by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States: the failure of agencies to share information with one another. That problem has come under intense scrutiny since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
All sides have vowed to change the culture, but some skeptics doubt that intelligence agencies will share their deepest secrets with one another. The director of the CIA, for example, oversees another multiple-agency command center set up a year ago by the president -- the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. But Broderick says the two aren't in competition: His center focuses on activities in the United States, while the other has a global mission.