NEW YORK -- Charlie Schnabolk, who was a few years ahead of me in college, always struck me as the kind of guy who would do most anything to get his name in the papers or his mug on television. But he now spends his time ducking calls from newspaper reporters and television correspondents.
The reason newsmen are after Schnabolk now is that he was a security consultant to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey during the building of the World Trade Center in 1970, when it was one of the first structures in the country to consider terrorism a threat. Then he was hired again in 1985, and wrote a secret report titled: "Terrorism Threat Perspective and Proposed Response for the World Trade Center." He is also the author of a textbook called "Physical Security: Practices and Technology."
That's been his business for 30 years. He formed the first engineering consulting firm to win that Port Authority contract in 1970. Before that, "security consultant" meant a retired policeman who hired guards and designed their uniforms. Schnabolk was one of the men who brought in closed-circuit television cameras, electronic access control, motion detectors and door locks controlled by silent alarms. He has been involved in securing more than 30 hospitals and 30 museums, along with hundreds of schools and apartment complexes in the New York area.
Of his beginnings in 1970, he says: "I don't think I knew how to spell 'terrorism' then. No one locked their doors before that."
It was different by 1985. His report on the World Trade Center in July of that year defined four levels of terrorism and gave these examples:
"(1) PREDICTABLE -- Bomb threats; (2) PROBABLE --Bombing attempts, computer crime; (3) POSSIBLE -- Hostage taking; (4) CATASTROPHIC -- Aerial bombing, chemical agents in water supply or air conditioning (caused by agents of a foreign government or a programmed suicide)."
He also warned then that the most vulnerable area of the center were the parking garages under the towers, which then included public parking areas. That ended after the truck bombing in the garage that killed six people on Feb. 26, 1993. Asked about the greatest terrorist dangers to the trade center in a review of security procedures last year, he said: "Someone flying a plane into the building. ... Someone blowing up the PATH tubes from New Jersey and water coming in from the Hudson River."
"So, why won't you talk now?" I asked Schnabolk.
"Because no one wants to hear what I have to say."
"Everyone wants to believe that we can protect ourselves from terrorism -- and we can't."
He was once asked in a legal proceeding what was the purpose of electronic security systems. He answered: "In one sentence, it is to get the criminal to go next door to the building that doesn't have them. ... It just moves the vulnerability."
That, he says, is what people don't want to hear. "They want to believe that we can protect ourselves from attack," he told me, "and we can't."
He compared giant-building security to protecting a suburban home. If a bad guy comes around and you have a big "WARNING: ALARM" sign on the lawn and a big Doberman barking behind the door, the bad guy is going to try next door. "Terrorist are not nuts ... no security device will prevent an attack by fanatics."
He added that if the World Trade Center, which spent $60 million on security upgrades after the 1993 bombing, had been invulnerable, the terrorists would have gone for the Empire State Building.
Knowing that frightening fact is the best thing we have going for us in these trying times. No one can protect us. The only real protection we have in the homeland is protecting each other.
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