Are we ready?
Hunt for Nichols suggests holes in preparedness
By Henry Schuster
Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit, has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on the people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those. He is the author of the newly published book, "Hunting Eric Rudolph."
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- When Brian Nichols allegedly stole a sheriff's deputy's gun and went on a killing and carjacking spree, it wasn't a terrorist incident.
But what if it were? What does Nichols' hours on the run tell us about preparedness, be it for a terrorist incident, or any criminal incident? What if authorities were hunting an al Qaeda member with access to weapons of mass destructions, instead of Nichols?
"Chaotic" was the description Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington used to describe the aftermath of the courthouse shootings during a news conference last Friday.
The chief praised his troops, but also acknowledged problems that included not quickly and thoroughly searching a downtown Atlanta parking deck where Nichols had allegedly carjacked a green Honda.
More than 13 hours after his escape -- while law enforcement across the region searched for the car -- someone discovered the Honda, just one level below in the deck.
Pennington talked about the difficulties in communicating between the agencies involved, noting the problem of compatible radio frequencies -- something that plagued New York police and firefighters during the September 11, 2001, attacks.
If something like September 11 happened in Atlanta, Pennington said, "We wouldn't be able to share information."
Olympic security no more
None of this is a confidence builder. And consider this: Atlanta's law enforcement community should have had a head start.
After all, it had prepared for the Olympics less than a decade ago. At the time, Atlanta was seen as something of a prototype of how different agencies could work together.
The process may not have been pretty. But after years of training, everyone from the Atlanta Police Department to the FBI knew who would take the lead in the event of an incident at the Olympics.
In early 1996, I watched as several SWAT teams participated in an exercise in which terrorists had taken over a MARTA train (that's Atlanta's rail system). The standoff did not end in a total success: There were several "mock" deaths when authorities stormed the train.
But that was the point. It was an exercise. Mistakes were made and, more importantly, learned from.
"You train like you play, and you play like you train," said CNN security analyst Mike Brooks. Brooks spent 26 years as a Washington cop and the last six on the city's Joint Terrorism Task Force.
"Its obvious they haven't been training very much," Brooks said of Atlanta law enforcement.
So how did Atlanta plunge so far, in terms of preparedness, in less than a decade?
Woody Johnson, the FBI's Special Agent in Charge before and during the 1996 Olympics, says the training and the coordination "have been forgotten."
"It's too easy to fall back into a reactive mode," he said.
And many of the people involved in Olympic security are NO longer with law enforcement agencies in the area, which means institutional memory has been lost.
"Training is perishable if you don't keep it up," agreed Brooks, citing complacency. "If you don't practice, don't learn from mistakes."
A widespread problem?
Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington said the intitial response was "chaotic."
Last year in Atlanta, Brooks attended a terrorism exercise known as a table-top, focusing on various leaders' reactions while authorities are deployed in the field.
The scenario was a chemical/biological incident right in the city's heart, the same area that Nichols escaped on foot and using public transportation.
Brooks said he thought the table-top exercise went well, but now, "I see what happens in the real world."
"[Nichols] was holding the area hostage, in effect. Now that doesn't fit the definition of terrorism, just like what happened with the Washington, D.C., snipers wasn't terrorism," said Brooks.
Pennington promised a thorough post-mortem, which in law enforcement lingo is known as "an after-action report."
So what happened in Atlanta earlier this month wasn't terrorism. It wasn't a chemical or biological incident. It wasn't anything exotic.
But it could have been.
It was a real life test of how well -- or poorly -- Atlanta was prepared.
How many other cities are in the same shape as Atlanta?