Terror Alert System Set For Jewish Community
09/12/03
Staff Writer
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The first national Jewish emergency warning system will be launched within the next few weeks, enabling Jewish leaders to communicate quickly during a terrorist threat or attack, The Jewish Week has learned. It is believed to be the first crisis alert system serving a specific community in the United States. The project, called Secure Community Alert Network, or SCAN, includes the leading Jewish organizations in the nation, as well as hundreds of Jewish community centers, federations and educational institutions. The project comes as federal officials are warning of potential new terrorist threats, and as the High Holy Days season approaches, usually a time when the community goes on a heightened state of alert. SCAN also comes in response to glaring communications failures faced by Jewish organizations since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against America. In recent months, two alleged terrorist plots against Jews, reported in the media based on federal government warnings, led to much confusion and anxiety within the American Jewish community, sources told The Jewish Week, highlighting the serious failure of Jewish leaders to coordinate information or dispel rumors. Those failures led to the unnecessary cancellation of numerous events and the spending of perhaps $1 million in extra security measures, Jewish officials said. SCAN will be "a Jewish crisis communications network," said Paul Goldenberg, a security consultant to the American Jewish Committee, which generated the idea for the unprecedented early warning system. "By not having this, there's no way for Jewish leaders across the nation to mass communicate and receive the same messages at the same time," he said. SCAN will be operated by a "management team" of 10 representatives from major Jewish groups including the AJCommittee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Jewish Community Centers Association, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Orthodox Union, Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform movement), United Jewish Communities and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Goldenberg, who was formerly in charge of New Jersey's Hate Crimes Unit, said he and Steve Pomerantz, the FBI's former chief counterterrorism director, will serve as liaisons to the federal law enforcement community as part of SCAN's 10-person law enforcement advisory board. SCAN will attempt to verify potential threats to the Jewish community through government channels, as well as check the veracity of unconfirmed reports and rumors about such threats. Heads of Jewish groups across the country were being asked this week if they want to participate in SCAN and to provide emergency contact information to the Presidents Conference, which is administering the program. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, said SCAN is essential because "we face a world in danger of increasing global terrorism, where Jews have been a primary target. Faced with questions of how the community was prepared to act in various scenarios, we saw no ability to communicate or to mobilize and inform in a rapid way." Hoenlein said in an emergency, SCAN will immediately notify about 150 contacts across the country via e-mail, pager, telephone and fax. SCAN will not stop signaling until the message is received. The contacts can then alert their memberships. "We will activate this in a crisis, as circumstance demands," Hoenlein said, stressing that the network "will be used on rare occasions" and not for general information. An advisory team of law enforcement and Jewish officials will determine when SCAN will be activated. Hoenlein noted that Jewish communities in South Africa, England and Australia have such alert systems, saying "it's a good question" why American Jewry has lagged behind. An Aug. 29 letter sent to Jewish organization leaders from Hoenlein and Presidents Conference chairman James Tisch outlined the urgent need for SCAN. SCAN has contracted with Dialogic Communications Corp., which provides communications and software systems already used by the military and public safety groups. "We are the first community that is nongovernmental to use this technology for the safety of the community," Goldenberg said. The FBI did not return phone calls about the project. AJCommittee counterterrorism expert Yehudit Barsky said it is crucial for the American Jewish community to understand the potential dangers it faces. "The fact is, Jews are constantly listed among the targets of al Qaeda," whose full organizational name, translated from Arabic, is "The International Front to Fight Jews and Crusaders," Barsky explained. "We can't go on pretending we don't have a communications problem." AJCommittee executive director David Harris said the communications problem was exacerbated in February when the Bush administration upgraded the nation to "orange alert" (the second most dangerous level) warning of a potential attack by al Qaeda. While administration intelligence officials did not specify Jewish targets, Newsweek's Web site warned of attacks against Jewish groups and Jewish-owned businesses. The Newsweek story suggested that the FBI had warned ADL national director Abraham Foxman about the threat, assuming that by alerting ADL, the entire American Jewish community was being warned. While the story was discredited, the incident irked Jewish leaders and accelerated implementation of SCAN. "There was some confusion about whether or not there was an FBI alert to the Jewish community," Harris recalled. "There were all kinds of contradictory messages." Afterward, Harris said he sought to avoid such confusion in the future, specifically "how can you create a communications network that links all the key Jewish leaders and institutions for instantaneous contact.," Harris said FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft have been briefed about SCAN. "Potentially it could serve as a model for other communities, and another bridge between law enforcement and the nation," he said. To implement SCAN, traditionally turf-conscious Jewish groups have cooperated in an extraordinary way. "This was really a no-nonsense, no-turf kind of process, really driven by compelling needs," Harris said. The cost of SCAN is modest, perhaps under $25,000, one expert speculated. "What's interesting is that this fits right into the president's initiative of a citizens' corps which calls for the mobilization of Americans in the fight against terrorism," Goldenberg said. "I believe the Jewish community in the United States is a vulnerable community," he said. "In a post-9-11 world, this is necessary."

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