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At the Nervous Center of Homeland Security

Tomorrow, Ridge will have to address those issues before the Sept. 11 commission. Lawmakers have slammed his department as slow-moving, disorganized and undermanned. Private citizens have derided the department's color-coded threat levels and questioned the effectiveness of airport security checks. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, has criticized its "turtle slow" pace in hiring intelligence analysts.

But last week, asked about the operations center, Rogers had nothing but praise. The center, he said, has already brought about "unprecedented sharing."

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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"This will take time, but we've left the starting block," said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Libutti, now an undersecretary of homeland security.

'One-Stop Shopping'

Inside two long, narrow rooms, a CIA agent sits in front of a computer next to an FBI agent, who sits next to a National Security Agency official, who sits next to a Defense Intelligence Agency employee -- 28 representatives in all from local, state and federal agencies. They are identified by an alphabet soup of abbreviations hanging from the low ceiling: TSA, USCG, DEA, DOD, MPD, ATF. A favorite Broderick motto hangs in the hall outside: "Nothing is routine after 9/11."

This is the hub of Broderick's operation. Each day, the agents examine hundreds of pieces of intelligence e-mailed or called in from law enforcement officers across the country through the Homeland Security Information Network. The network is linked to 1,500 users in hundreds of agencies and certain businesses that could be terrorist targets -- airlines, nuclear power plants, chemical manufacturers. Eventually, it will hook up to 5,000 users across the country, including mayors and governors, for instant and secure communication.

The agents are constantly conferring with each other. Sometimes they fire off a message to police departments or health agencies, asking whether a particular type of incident has occurred elsewhere in the country. On the walls, giant screens display documents and maps (one shows the location of nuclear power plants) along with the 24-hour cable news channels, most on mute.

More than half of the information streaming into the operations center has to do with suspicious people trying to enter the country. Someone recently tried to get past U.S. customs with carry-on luggage containing a bag of powdered sugar with an alarm clock on top. After verifying the powder wasn't an illegal substance, customs agents let it through. "Was this a test of the system?" Broderick asked. "We can't get complacent," he said. "Nothing is too small to run down."

Almost every day, reports come in from the Transportation Security Administration about items that airline passengers try to take onboard. One man tried to hide a set of large butcher knives in his carry-on bag. (He turned out to be a chef worried that the airline would lose his knives.) Another man hid a pair of pruning shears behind a false side of his attache case.

Several people have been stopped carrying hollowed-out appliances. ("It's not illegal, but was someone rehearsing something?" Broderick asked.) Others have tried to board with loaded guns, which are confiscated. "They were in a state where they can carry a firearm and they say they forgot to take it off," Broderick said incredulously. "They're going through security, they have to take their shoes off and are going through a metal detector, but they forgot?"

Each time an incident unfolds, the center disperses the information to the proper agencies, monitors developments and canvasses for more information. "Without a doubt, this is one of the best things that has happened since 9/11," said Michael R. Bouchard, assistant director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has two senior agents in the center.

"It's one-stop shopping," said U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer, who said Broderick called him shortly after ricin was discovered in a Senate office building in February and provided him with quick links to the Environmental Protection Agency, federal laboratories and the U.S. Coast Guard, which has expertise in hazardous-material cleanup. "It would have been tougher without the coordination of the Homeland Security Operations Center."

Preemptive Action

Broderick passes on eight to 10 pieces of information daily to the intelligence unit across the hall. "I don't do intelligence analysis," he said. "We're the guys down in the mine picking up these nuggets."

But sometimes circumstances demand immediate action. Broderick's operation triggered Homeland Security's first full-scale alert during last summer's power outage in New York. The center sent out warnings to law enforcement agencies and first responders across the country, and staff members monitored the situation for signs that the blackout was triggered by terrorists.

Last fall, the center made the decision to shut down 13 post offices in the Washington area when a powder that initially tested positive for anthrax was found at a mail facility at the Anacostia Naval Station. During Hurricane Isabel, it was in touch with all relevant agencies -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency, local leaders, the FBI, police -- in case anyone tried to take advantage of a vulnerable city. In February, the center issued an alert with the FBI about 9,000 blank French passports and 6,000 vehicle registration cards that had been stolen outside Paris. They messaged customs and immigration officials and anyone else they thought should be on the lookout for the documents.

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