A Spot on the Hit List
Nevada Homeland Security commissioners will meet in closed session today to complete work on a study expected to identify Las Vegas as a likely target for international terrorism. The study essentially undercuts findings by the U.S. Homeland Security Department, which in January left Las Vegas off a list of 35 American cities terrorists are most likely to strike. That omission drew strong protests from Nevada officials and terrorism experts, who argued that the federal agency's analysis failed to consider the obvious desire of al-Qaida to strike symbols of Western materialism and decadence, such as Las Vegas.
Leaving Las Vegas off the list meant less federal anti-terrorism money that could be used by local agencies for prevention and response.
The state study, prepared by UNLV's Research Foundation and its Institute for Security Studies, is expected to lay out that argument and others, as well as detail locations in Clark County and throughout the state most vulnerable to attack.
It also is expected to detail flaws in intelligence sharing, emergency communications systems and evacuation plans and to recommend improvement in the ability of communities to provide medical care on a massive scale during a terrorist attack or natural disaster.
Many details, however, will remain classified. Nevada Homeland Security commissioners plan to meet again next week to decide how much information to make public. The study was paid for with $400,000 in federal Homeland Security funding. The findings will be provided to the federal agency as it updates its list of threatened cities later this year. Cities on the list are eligible for special federal anti-terrorism aid. Nevada Homeland Security Commission Chairman Dale Carrison, one of the few people to see the study, was reluctant Tuesday to discuss its conclusions until the entire commission has a chance to review the study this morning.
But he said that dealing with the threat of terrorism in the Las Vegas metropolitan area is his greatest concern.
"In my mind, an act of terrorism is the biggest threat to Southern Nevada," said Carrison, who is director of emergency services at University Medical Center.
His view was shared by Sheriff Bill Young, who is also on the commission. Young said he hasn't seen the study, yet.
"Our No. 1 issue isn't flooding, fires or earthquakes," Young said. "It's terrorism."
In explaining why Las Vegas didn't make the list of 35 likely target cities, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that his department had come up with a new risk-based formula that had made 3.2 billion computer calculations.
But Carrison and Young were astounded to learn earlier this month that Homeland Security personnel who compiled facts to feed into the computer relied on inaccurate information about Las Vegas.
Chertoff's subordinates told Nevada officials that such prominent and potential terrorist targets as the Las Vegas Convention Center, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Nellis Air Force Base had not been included.
Nevada officials are hoping to get a better shake from federal authorities during the next round of anti-terrorism funding.
Young has said that counterterrorism experts at the FBI and CIA consider Las Vegas one of the top five cities at risk in the country, not far behind New York and Washington.
The Sept. 11 hijackers spent time in Las Vegas before the attacks, and since then, the city has repeatedly surfaced in terrorism intelligence chatter.
Al-Qaida also has had a tendency to attack tourist sites in other parts of the world since Sept. 11 - a strategy that has not gone unnoticed in Las Vegas, a city regarded as a top international tourist destination. Las Vegas boasts of being home to 12 of the world's largest hotels.