Alert keeps city on its toes
- Jim Redden
- Portland Tribune - News
FBI warnings of increased terrorism threat spur action, worry and even suspicion
Local building owners and managers are wondering how far to go to prevent terrorist attacks.
Even before the government issued a heightened terrorist alert Monday, FBI officials were warning that followers of Osama bin Laden might attack lightly protected office buildings, synagogues, sports facilities and shopping centers.
'Al-Qaida believes that a series of small attacks over a number of days could have as much impact on this country as a single large attack,' said Charles Mathews, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Portland office. He spent the week meeting with managers, owners and religious leaders to urge them to take precautions.
But some of the owners and managers are struggling with how to increase security without driving the public away.
'What is Portland's comfort zone?' asked Robin White, executive vice president of the Portland chapter of the Building Owners and Managers Association, which represents many of the city's largest commercial property owners and managers.
White said most business owners already increased security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Among other things, they hired additional security guards and began closing the doors to their loading docks when they were not in use.
Although White said the association's members are taking the warnings seriously, they are worried about how Portlanders will react to stricter precautions.
'Some buildings in East Coast cities have installed metal detectors in their lobbies. I'm not sure that anyone wants to go that far right now,' White said.
Some religious leaders worry about frightening their worshipers. They include David Leslie, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. Mathews met with Leslie and more than 40 other Ecumenical Ministries officials and members Wednesday.
'How can you make your church safe without turning it into a fortress that people don't want to enter?' Leslie asked.
The Portland Trail Blazers hired additional security guards and installed more surveillance cameras around the Rose Garden after Sept. 11, 2001, said J. E. Isaac, vice president of the NBA team. After Monday's alert, he said, Blazer officials hired even more guards and directed that all bags be searched.
The Blazers have made comprehensive plans for dealing with any emergency, including canceling coming events and locking down the Rose Garden grounds, Isaac said. He declined to provide other details, citing security concerns.
'Our guests appreciate the steps we are taking to make them safer,' Isaac said.
Can it happen here?
Despite Monday's well-publicized alert, White said some building owners and managers find it hard to believe that terrorists would target Portland.
'It's not like we're New York or Washington, D.C.,' she said.
Leslie said he wonders whether the increased terror alert is part of a government propaganda campaign to build support for a possible war with Iraq.
'We all know terrorism is real, but it also has to be asked whether the alerts are overstating the crisis to make people less critical and more willing to buy into this whole war scenario,' said Leslie, whose group opposes such a war.
Mathews said Monday's alert was prompted by information provided by both the FBI and CIA, based on intelligence the agencies had received from numerous sources.
'If I was in charge of a venue that thousands of people visit, I'd be taking steps to make it as secure as possible,' Mathews said.
The FBI agent said he understood the reluctance to believe that terrorists would target Portland, but he pointed to the indictment of the so-called Portland Six as evidence that al-Qaida already has made inroads into the city.
Six local Muslims have been charged in federal court with conspiring to levy war against the United States and provide material support to al-Qaida.
According to federal prosecutors, at least one of the defendants considered attacking local synagogues. During a conversation recorded by a government informant, Jeffrey Leon Battle allegedly talked about firing on synagogues with automatic weapons while wearing a bulletproof vest.
According to a transcript of one recorded conversation released by the government, Battle told the informant, 'You can imagine, imagine the mental shock that you will have.'
Mathews called such statements significant.
'The fact that people in the area have been indicted for giving material support to al-Qaida should make you wonder whether there are other similarly situated people in the area,' Mathews said.
Churches, synagogues prepare
Area Jewish leaders said they have been taking precautions against terrorist attacks for years.
'Security is something we have taken seriously for a long time,' said Robert Horenstein, community relations director for the Jewish Federation of Portland.
Horenstein and other local Jewish leaders met with Mathews at Mittleman Jewish Community Center in Southwest Portland on Monday. Mathews had requested the meeting in order to urge increased vigilance during the orange alert.
'We appreciate being kept informed. It's a good time to review our security plans and think about what else we can do,' said Horenstein, who noted that local synagogues and Jewish organizations have hired guards and instituted employee security procedures in recent years.
Local Christian leaders also are talking about the need for more information on how to balance security concerns with open churches. Rich Stoller, assistant director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, said the subject came up when Mathews met with approximately 45 Ecumenical Ministries officials and other Christian leaders Wednesday.
Stoller said Mathews told them that Christians and Christian churches now are considered potential terrorist targets. According to Stoller, Mathews talked about recent attacks on Christians in Pakistan and other countries with large Muslim populations.
At the same time, Stoller said, the warning raised questions that such alerts might spark a backlash against local law-abiding Muslims.
'We worry that the increased tension could create an atmosphere where the civil rights of Muslim members of our community are violated,' Stoller said. 'We not only need to guard against terrorism but against hate crimes, too.'