Homeland security exercise includes descent on Malaspina

Mock attacks part of nationwide operation to prepare for terrorists

Posted: Tuesday, February 24, 2004

There was no Juneau trial of al-Qaida terrorists, no actual explosion at the Princess Cruise Dock.

But what Alaska ferry passengers saw Monday was a real team of terrorism fighters drop onto the Malaspina from a helicopter in the culmination of a weeklong anti-terror exercise and several similar mock episodes.

Seven men boarded the Haines-bound vessel in what Coast Guard Cmdr. John Sifling called a "vertical insertion." They pretended to search for a fertilizer bomb in a rented truck.

"We did have people playing suspects, but there was no opposition," Sifling said.

The event was part of United Defense 04, a nationwide multi-agency drill that began with an imagined hurricane and nuclear explosion in Texas. Sifling said the other major staging area was in Alaska.

From aboard the Malaspina, Capt. Mark Sundt said Monday afternoon on his way from Skagway to Haines that the exercise made him feel safer.

"They came on the ship in a very professional manner," he said.

He said it took less than a minute for the men to board the ferry from the time the helicopter appeared.

"I am very proud of our passengers," he added. They were advised of the nature of the exercise with frequent announcements and didn't get in the way.

Capt. George Capacci, general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway system, said the ferries must have plans for security, so the simulation was in everyone's interest.

Sifling said the national exercise, which began Thursday, is all about cooperation.

Donald W. Miles, a public affairs officer for the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Northern Command that is putting on United Defense 04, said the cooperation between the military and civilian agencies in Juneau "has been tremendous."

Working in the command center in the second floor of police headquarters, Juneau City Manager Rod Swope said the scenario in Juneau began with a trial of al-Qaida terrorists being moved here from Seattle.

The teams began by responding to an imagined explosion at the Princess Cruise Dock.

An aerial photograph hung on the wall in one of the rooms of the command center. It showed that at two other locations on the downtown waterfront, divers found what represented 12 sticks of dynamite in watertight packaging.

Members of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Security Team were brought in from San Pedro, Calif., on a C-5 Galaxy aircraft that also carried their diving equipment and three 25-foot boats. The boats, armed with guns at the front and rear, have top speeds of 50 knots.

Sifling said everyone understands they have to work together.

"Here in Southeast Alaska, we're used to being isolated from the rest of the country and the center of Alaska up north," he said.

Miles said that if something does happen, the command doesn't want agencies having to "exchange business cards."

The exercise command center was set up with civilians working together with men and women in Army, Navy and Coast Guard uniforms.

Monday afternoon's briefing tied the Juneau command center in with four other staging areas around Alaska. They included Rear Adm. James Underwood, commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska, at the downtown federal building and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Anchorage, discussing the two suspected terrorists on the Malaspina.

People working in the field kept in touch via the new Alaska Land Mobile Radio, which will remain in Juneau and serve multiple agencies. It allows the Coast Guard and civilian agencies to communicate with each other.

Project Manager Jack Phelps said Monday from the heart of the communications operation at the Goldbelt Hotel that the system would have come to Juneau eventually, but the defense exercise brought it here quicker.

Sifling said participants in the exercise will be "mopping up" today and then discussing how it went.

Miles said the U.S. doesn't want its adversaries to know where it is vulnerable.

"We won't disclose what we've found that needs to be fixed," he said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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