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Katrina 'the terrorist'

Storm hits targets identified by the FBI

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat them.

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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- "There's only one terrorist around here," said the Louisiana National Guardsman, as he paced outside the New Orleans Convention Center. "And her name is Katrina."

Jim Bernazzani might agree. He's the FBI's special agent in charge for New Orleans, a man who has spent years working counterterrorism.

Bernazzani got to New Orleans a few months ago from Washington, where he'd been the FBI's man in charge of international counterterrorism cases.

He'd worked with the CIA closely in recent years and had been deeply involved in a variety of cases -- from chasing the Lebanese Hezbollah group in the early 1990s through helping run the FBI's operations center immediately after 9/11.

It was only natural that one of the first things he did when he got to New Orleans was to review targets that terrorists might hit if they attacked the city. "When we mapped out how terrorists would act, there was breaching of levees, flooding the city and the introduction of toxins into the water, along with sinking a ship in the Mississippi River," he said.

He rode out the storm in the FBI's field office on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Most of his agents were gone, but he was there to take care of sensitive documents, firearms and secure the building.

By the time Katrina had passed, most of the roof was gone; the building, like so many others, was virtually uninhabitable. Bernazzani said it was an island in floodwaters.

The city, he soon discovered, might just as well have been hit by a terrorist attack. "For New Orleans, the net result is the same. Clearly the tourism industry getting knocked out -- that happened. The only target of opportunity that didn't happen was sinking a ship in the river.

"What we were preparing for, relative to a terrorist attack, had been handed to us by Mother Nature."

The baddest of the bad

The only difference is that, instead of investigating a terrorist attack, Bernazzani has another agenda.

It will take months to rebuild the FBI offices and probably longer for many agents and their families to rebuild their lives.

Then there's the issue of New Orleans and its violent criminals, who Bernazzani characterizes as some of the worst in the country. Before Katrina hit, the FBI was putting the finishing touches on a project to monitor more than 700 criminals and gang members in the city.

Bernazzani was taking a page from his counterterrorism experience, setting up the first-of-its-kind unit because he'd gotten feedback from community leaders that they had lost faith in the state judicial system.

"What we decided to do, with the baddest of the bad, we were going to prosecute them through the federal system."

That was before Katrina hit. Now, the task is more basic -- finding these folks.

"One of four things has happened to them: they drowned; they are under arrest; they are still in town and we haven't got to them; or they were part of the exodus," Bernazzani said.

He can't put numbers on each category yet, but did say he was able to salvage some of their records from the FBI office.

Right now, Bernazzani and his task force are sending out intelligence reports to every FBI field office and asking them to disseminate the information to state and local police.

He said "the vast majority" of evacuees are law-abiding citizens, but he wants police around the country to be on their toes in case some of New Orleans' problems start showing up elsewhere.

In the meantime, the FBI is initiating a couple of major projects in Louisiana, which has a history of public corruption.

A telephone tip line has been set up for people to report what they believe is government fraud or public corruption: 1-800-CALL FBI (1-800-225-5324). And for online scams, complaints can be sent to the FBI's special Web site: http://www.ic3.gov/external link .

Through it all, even in New Orleans, Bernazzani knows that a terrorist attack remains a threat.

"What better time for al Qaeda to strike, when the focus of the country is in New Orleans? As of today, the FBI and intelligence community see no planned activity, but that is not to say we're not worried about missing something."

Are we prepared: Your reactions

I asked last week whether you thought we were prepared for the next big disaster, either a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.

Most of you, in your e-mails, said no. Not at all.

start quoteLet's not let homeland security turn this country into a prison.end quote
-- Aaron Simmons

Forrest Smith writes: "The US is less prepared for a disaster or emergency than prior to 9/11. Since 9/11 and the building of Homeland Security, we have thrown billions of dollars at equipping states and local governments for a weapon of mass destruction or terrorist event.

"We need to get back to the fundamentals of emergency management and cut back on the pork-barrel equipment toy box mentality. New Orleans and Louisiana are prime examples, high marks for buying equipment, dismal failure at managing a disaster."

Aaron Simmons disagrees: "I'm responding to your article linking national preparedness to national disasters, and preparedness for terrorist attacks. These are two entirely different things. Let's not let homeland security turn this country into a prison."

Anne in Houston worries about her city in particular: "Our federal emergency response is overwhelmed dealing with the rest of the Gulf Coast. To evacuate the entire city (6+ million) after a terrorist incident that may destroy existing highways would be a nightmare within itself. Houston -- the medical center, the port and the refineries -- makes an excellent target."

Steve Markway wonders what will happen next time: "Seems the government has been spending a lot of money in creating a homeland security illusion designed to alleviate fears but lacking in any real substance. Makes you wonder about other possible scenarios."

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