Originally created 12/16/04

FBI looks to local officers for task force



ATLANTA - The FBI announced Wednesday it is inviting local police agencies in Augusta, Savannah and Brunswick to assign officers to a Savannah-based task force that would combat terrorism.

Local officials say that while the organization might be useful in protecting the chemicals plants, ports and nuclear facilities in east Georgia, coming up with the manpower could be tough for lean agencies to do.

Such joint terrorism task forces already exist in the largest Federal Bureau of Investigation field offices. The force in Atlanta, located in the same building as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's terrorism clearinghouse, receives 200-300 tips a week about threats, suspicious packages or people that are funneled in from police agencies across the state.

Many of those incidents can be solved quickly at the scene, but a small number require a formal investigation that can keep agents busy for a month or so. Joint task forces are seen by the FBI as a cheap way to expand its reach by deputizing state and local police officers with the same authority as the federal agents, even giving them a desk and telephone.

The Atlanta task force has about 100 cases pending at any given time, according to Gregory Jones, the FBI's special agent in charge for Georgia.

"Some of the information, pre-9-11, would have been dismissed on the surface," he said.

Not today. Even reports of an engineer taking pictures of a competitor's chemical plant result in a lengthy visit by agents. And summaries of all of the reports must be prepared for review by analysts to make sure several seemingly innocuous incidents don't add up to a widespread plot.

Despite the resources required to handle such a large number of calls that turn out to be innocent, Agent Jones said law enforcement wants the public to continue calling.

"While you don't want to go out there and scare the bejesus out of anybody, you do want them to stay vigilant," he said.

Local police departments don't usually have an officer working full time on terrorism prevention. Freeing one up for a task force could be difficult, said Capt. P.A. Williams, the commander of the Richmond County special operations unit and bomb squad.

"I don't know how we could afford to do that because everyone we have assigned to special operations has another job. ... That means something else would go unmanned," he said.

Local, state and federal officers in metro Augusta already meet monthly to share terrorist-related information, which is forwarded to Atlanta.

The Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department has an officer who works with federal agencies already, including the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or walter.jones@morris.com.