On the Homefront

For security officials across the country, “America on Alert” is more than a tag line on CNN. It’s the new

For security officials across the country, “America on Alert” is more than a tag line on CNN. It’s the new way of life: the Centers of Disease Control are monitoring anthrax outbreaks, armed National Guardsmen are securing airports, fighter jets are flying combat air patrols over major cities and tall buildings have readied for quick evacuation. Vice President Richard Cheney has been moved to a secure undisclosed location.

Here at Harvard, the threats mean less parking and more security checks.

Within hours of the start of Sunday’s bombing attacks in Afghanistan, the FBI asked all law enforcement agencies to go their highest state of alert. And as fighter jets and bombers continue to streak through the skies over Afghanistan, Americans are anxiously peeking over their shoulders and reassessing their own security.

All around, the warnings are coming from the highest levels.

“The American people need to be on alert. Threats do remain. This is a war,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said shortly after the bombing of Afghanistan began.

The FBI is so concerned about more terrorist activity that it has asked its agents to cool their investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks and concentrate instead on preventing future attacks.

Even U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft admitted last week that further terrorist attacks are not only possible, but “likely.”

That admission has left America jittery: A deranged man on an American Airlines flight led to a emergency landing and fighter escort earlier this week; suspicious passengers at Logan Airport have forced multiple planes to return to the gate; bomb scares have caused evacuations around the country on a daily basis; even military surplus stores are struggling to stock enough outdated and ineffective gas masks.

Harvard has not been immune to he fears permeating the nation.

Jessica Stern, the terrorist expert who provided the basis for Nicole Kidman’s character in The Peacemaker, addressed her Kennedy School of Government (KSG) course, “Non-state Threats to International Security,” in the days immediately following the attacks. When listing top terrorist targets in the country, Harvard filled the number five slot.

Rumors abound that a secret FBI list also places Harvard as the fifth most-likely terrorist target in America—rumors that both the FBI and University administrators deny. Students fled town on the weekend of the Sept. 22, when an e-mail rumor stated that there would be “bloodshed” in the Hub that Saturday.

Tensions calmed when the weekend passed without incident, but goosebumps have popped up again now that the U.S. has begun strikes against Afghanistan.

The most important question most students—and anxious parents—are asking is, “Are we safe?”

The answer is not a simple yes or no, security experts say. Threat analysis is far from an exact science. “There’s really no way to come up with a threat level. All the wisdom of the world can’t do it,” says Michael L. Taylor, a Boston-based security consultant. Terrorists have different goals and therefore different targets. What may be an appealing target to one group does not satisfy the purpose of another. Harvard’s international name makes it a possible target, but its educational nature and decentralized campus make it an unlikely one.

“Abroad, when people think of things that represent America they do think of Harvard. On the other hand, [Harvard] doesn’t represent America in the same way that the World Trade Center or the Pentagon does,” says Juliette Kayyem, executive director of the Kennedy School’s executive session on domestic preparedness.

That’s not to say it’s totally safe. News from Harvard Yard carries extra weight in the international media.

“[An attack on Harvard] would certainly get a lot of press around the world,” says U.S. Army Gen. John C. Reppert, who now works at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG).

Several factors, though, mitigate a possible threat. Harvard’s educational acclaim and international repute means that people around the world have visited and studied at Harvard. Any attack would likely affect foreign nationals in Harvard’s diverse student body. Additionally, Harvard is tough target to hit: with 18,000 students, and hundreds of buildings spread out between 12 schools and nine faculties in two cities, it would be difficult to locate the target that “is” Harvard.

“There is no one credible threat that I’ve come across that would indicate that Harvard has an increased exposure,” Harvard University Police Department Chief Francis D. “Bud” Riley says.

The truth, though, is that while terrorism experts and Harvard officials admit that Harvard is at risk, all agree that the chance of an attack is a very slight one. Nonetheless, that has not stopped the University from stepping up police patrols and reexamining safety across campus—from Holyoke Center to Widener Library to Hillel.

“Everyone around campus is reassessing security,” Riley says.

In the days following the Sept. 11 attack, HUPD was in almost daily contact with the FBI, Secret Service, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and other federal law enforcement agencies. Riley, a former lieutenant colonel of the Massachusetts State Police, is well connected in the local law enforcement community and has been receiving advice on Harvard’s threat profile and vulnerability.

FBI Special Agent and Spokesperson Gail Marcinkiewicz admits there is concern that there will be retaliatory attacks occurring somewhere in the world. In the meantime, they remain on alert indefinitely. “Any specific credible threat will be communicated immediately to proper local authorities,” she says.

Riley and other HUPD officials have met with administrators at all levels of the University to discuss tightening security. “There are sure to be changes, but I can’t comment on anything in particular,” Riley says. “Because times have changed we are at a heightened level of security.” While officials refuse to comment on any specific security arrangements or staffing, some of the signs of heightened vigilance are easily identifiable.

Within hours of the attacks, HUPD had called in extra officers and placed round-the-clock guards on certain high-profile buildings like Massachusetts Hall and Harvard Hillel. HUPD Dignitary Protection Officers were assigned to University President Lawrence H. Summers.

Since the attacks, HUPD has maintained an increased presence of uniformed officers as a visible sign of awareness. Police went office-to-office to explain how to spot the suspicious packages—lessons that seemed to have paid off as officers have responded to a plethora of strange mailings and abnormal activity in the last month, including bomb scares at Holyoke Center, Maxwell Dworkin and even HUPD’s own headquarters at 29 Garden St. “There are just some people who take advantage of the anxiety of the community for some strange thrill,” Riley explains.

The University has added security to large gatherings like football games, and has extensive security and contingency plans for tomorrow’s Installation ceremonies.

Security improvements have not ended with the police. Within days of the attack, Harvard Planning and Real Estate closed the public parking garage beneath Holyoke Center to non-Harvard affiliates—plugging one of the school’s largest security holes.

At Widener Library—one of the University’s most high-profile buildings—a second security guard has been placed at the entrance to ensure that everyone who enters the library has a valid Harvard ID, according to library spokesperson Beth Brainard.

“Widener is a monumental building, internationally recognized as a symbol of Harvard. The same thing happened during the Gulf War. All of the lockers were removed from the ground floor,” Brainard comments. “There has historically been a sense that it might be more of a target than the other less recognizable libraries.”

The library now requires that delivery people be escorted while inside the building and the mailroom staff has been trained to spot suspicious packages.

While the library’s security upgrade had been in the works since several high-profile thefts from the library this spring, after Sept. 11, the library authorities focused on the new measures and put the new rules into effect six days later.

Brainard says the staff and patrons have appreciated the new measures. “We haven’t had any grumbling yet,” she adds.

Within the next few weeks, other security measures will be implemented, including a card swipe system to enter Widener.

Other campus buildings, like Memorial Hall, have also added security.

“We have had some changes, [but] I can’t really speak in specifics because that would defeat the purpose,” Memorial Hall building manager Raymond C. Traietti says. “We have a lot of people in the building and it was a concern. We wanted our patrons to feel more comfortable. September 11 was a scary day.”

Nonetheless, security consultants like Taylor recommend even more security—like replacing campus garbage cans with so-called “bomb mitigation containers,” which are specially designed to contain and control a blast.

However, far beyond any simple closings or extra guards, last month’s attacks have forced the University to completely rethink its stance on terrorism. No longer can a company or University say, “terrorism couldn’t happen here,” Taylor says.

Indeed after Sept. 11, everything has changed.

Out at Logan Airport, the departure site of two of the hijacked flights, the airport’s usual assignment of 40 state troopers has been supplemented by 50 deputy U.S. marshals and more than 100 National Guard members carrying M-16 rifles. Boston Harbor is under the control of a Florida-based U.S. Coast Guard port security team and the harbor has been closed to liquefied natural gas tankers.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Association (MBTA) has added police patrols in the subways and train stations and has begun training its staff and officers to respond to a biological or chemical weapons attack.

The MBTA’s special operations team has been patrolling the subway and has made at least two stops in Harvard Square.

“Like all other law enforcement agencies, we’re at a heightened state of alert,” say MBTA Spokesperson Joe Pesaturo.

All of this added security will not be cheap. The State Police has already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime since the attacks. Companies around the Hub have added security guards and metal detectors. Here, the University has hired extra security guards.

In this area, Harvard’s vast fiscal assets provide the University with the chance to build up a strong set of resources. HUPD’s officers receive first-responder training in hazardous materials and other areas that could potentially be used to combat terrorism. Several of Harvard’s officers are ex-military officers with extensive security training. In addition, in a clear sign that the department has long been considering Harvard’s possible risk, HUPD had looked into purchasing a bomb-sniffing dog prior to last month’s attacks—an idea that has moved to the department’s front-burner since.

However, the University is being careful not to overact. Although HUPD’s officers are armed—unlike police at schools like Brown—there are no plans to offer specialized so-called SWAT training or to start a University bomb squad. For those services, the University will continue to rely on the Boston police and the State Police.

So far, officials have been careful that any security changes do not inhibit the school’s educational mission—which is based on open access and freedom.

“It’s outrageous to restrict access in an educational environment,” agrees Riley. “If we need to restrict access, we will—but we’ll make sure we can explain it. We’re just not at that level of risk.”

University officials and security experts agree that vigilance and education can only go so far. No place can protect against every type of attack—especially if it has as many diverse buildings and people as Harvard. Even in New York, which has spent millions over the last decade preparing and training for a terrorist attack, the sheer scale of last week’s attack baffled many law enforcement officials. Before last month, few terrorist scenarios considered suicidal hijackers with pilot training.

As U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon, “You cannot defend at every place, at every time, against every conceivable, imaginable—even unimaginable—terrorist attack.”