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J.M. Kalil

New Year's Celebration: Military Gunships to Patrol Strip

31 December 2003

and Dave Berns

LAS VEGAS -- Armed helicopters will patrol the restricted airspace over the Strip on New Year's Eve to protect Las Vegas from a potential terrorist attack, authorities said Tuesday.

The military gunships will be equipped with weaponry that can "dismantle or disrupt any kind of ground attack" involving tankers, trucks or other vehicles, Sheriff Bill Young said.

Also, unarmed Blackhawk helicopters supplied by the Homeland Security Department will rove overhead to intercept any rogue aircraft that violate the federal flight restriction by traveling near the Strip, where an estimated 300,000 people are expected to celebrate the arrival of 2004.

"We know that in the past, Las Vegas has been mentioned as a target of al-Qaida," Gov. Kenny Guinn said. "Las Vegas is proactively taking every precaution we can to protect our guests."

Measures include beefed up Metropolitan Police Department security on the Strip and a 23-mile radius flight ban invoked by the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday afternoon. Young said the military helicopters serve a singular purpose for tonight's event: "Making that open-air atmosphere we know is an al-Qaida target in a general sense pretty impenetrable."

Similar flight restrictions and armed helicopter patrols will also be in place for the Times Square celebration in New York City this evening, as well as for Pasadena's Rose Parade on New Year's Day.

Crew members on the Blackhawk will carry handguns and automatic weapons, but the helicopters will not include the heavy weaponry that they carry in war zones, said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Homeland Security Department.

The Blackhawks would intercept any aircraft that stray into the temporary no-fly zone. Military jets could be dispatched to intercept aircraft that ignore warnings from the Blackhawk crews.

The overflights also will include one specially equipped Cessna Citation provided by ICE. The Citation will appear to be a business jet and is outfitted with infrared detection systems.

The agency offered a similar "airspace security package" for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

"We have gotten pretty good at it," Boyd said, noting that the Blackhawk-Citation combo has been used for border patrol and to find drug traffickers.

Guinn said Washington, D.C.-based officials with the Department of Homeland Security offered the support of military helicopters during meetings with local, county and state officials earlier this week.

Federal officials declined to identify all of the cities where similar security will be provided tonight, although they acknowledged that New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., will experience the same overflights as Las Vegas.

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security also declined to say which U.S. city, if any, faces a greater terrorist threat than the rest.

In Las Vegas, numerous other security measures being implemented will go unnoticed by the public, local officials said, but they refused to disclose them.

"If there are bad guys here in town we certainly wouldn't want them to know all the tools and tricks in our bag," Young said.

Nearly 2,000 police officers and 600 jail guards will be deployed, and authorities also are relying on help from nearly 5,000 security guards at local hotels. Young said a few sharpshooters will be positioned on hotel roofs.

The FBI has bolstered its force locally for New Year's with an extra 25 agents culled from across the nation. The Nevada National Guard will deploy more than 100 local troops to bolster security at Hoover Dam and McCarran International Airport over the next two days to help relieve Metropolitan Police Department officers.

The guard also sent a Blackhawk medical helicopter and two Chinook transport helicopters to help as needed with surveillance and transportation, said 1st Lt. April Conway, a spokeswoman for the guard.

Despite the extraordinary security precautions under way, public officials reiterated Tuesday that the federal government has uncovered no specific or credible intelligence suggesting Las Vegas is in terrorists' cross hairs.

Guinn acknowledged that he and other leaders may be sending a mixed message to potential celebrants by taking highly elevated security measures, but not cancelling fireworks displays or encouraging people to stay home.

The governor said without specific information about an immediate threat to Las Vegas, there is no reason to cancel celebrations. But how leaders respond to vague threats has shifted in the two years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"America has changed, and we must change," Guinn said. "Yes, it may be a mixed message, but I think it's one of comfort that we're doing everything we can."

A week ago, Young and Las Vegas tourism marketer Billy Vassiliadis discussed the wisdom of cancelling tonight's fireworks show and both men agreed such a move would be impractical and would have little impact on the wild New Year's Eve partying that typically envelopes the Strip and downtown.

"Everybody realized that people pour onto the Strip whether there's fireworks or not," said Vassiliadis, whose R&R Partners has the advertising contract for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

There was no Strip fireworks show for New Year's Eve 2000 amid security and crowd control concerns for the start of the new millennium. That decision left many tourists and locals angered by what they viewed as an underwhelming celebration that was surpassed by cities around the world.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman embarked on a whirlwind media tour Tuesday to further publicize the "no known threat" message that recently has become something of a mantra for local leaders.

"I wouldn't walk down ... the Fremont Street Experience if I thought there was going to be any danger," said Goodman, who will spend his fifth consecutive New Year's Eve at the downtown attraction tonight. "I'm going from studio to studio to tell people that. The perception (of danger) becomes the reality, and that's what I'm trying to protect against."

Such assurances that there are no credible threats known to Las Vegas contradict reports by several national media outlets.

The Washington Post reported on Friday that unnamed U.S. officials speculated that terrorists might have intended to hijack an Air France flight from Paris to Los Angeles and crash it in Las Vegas.

Other outlets reported last week that the intelligence leading to the government's Dec. 21 imposition of the nationwide high terror alert included references to Las Vegas as a possible target.

Plans for a potential Strip evacuation in case of a public safety emergency have been in the works for years.

"It would be a Herculean task, but it would certainly be something that could be done," said Guinn's homeland security adviser Jerry Bussell.

The Review-Journal reported Tuesday that local officials expected the FAA to hand down a temporary flight restriction that would bar almost all aircraft from traveling within a 10-mile radius of airspace centered around McCarran International Airport between 9 p.m. New Year's Eve and 3 a.m. New Year's Day.

But the flight ban handed down on Tuesday actually is much larger and will be in effect for a longer period of time.

FAA spokesman Donn Walker said the temporary flight restriction bars aircraft from traveling within a 23-mile radius centered at McCarran International Airport between 8 p.m. today and 3 a.m. Thursday.

The flight ban, which is in effect between the ground and 18,000 feet, applies to private aircraft, but not to commercial, military, law enforcement or emergency rescue aircraft.

Private pilots who wish to obtain an exemption to the flight restriction must: file a flight plan with the FAA before departure; obtain a discreet beacon code for their aircraft; maintain communication with the FAA; and obtain permission from air traffic control at McCarran. But the 11.5 miles closest to the airport within that airspace can only be breached by commercial aircraft.

Separately, the FAA is prohibiting private flights near Hoover Dam during the same time period.

Local officials said Tuesday that they are confident they are taking every possible measure to ensure safety, but still struggle with apprehension about what could unfold this evening.

"I've been waking up at two in the morning and not going back to sleep," Sheriff Young said. "I am worried."

Review-Journal writer Brian Haynes contributed to this report.

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