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V.I. Officials Dismayed by Magazine Article on Territory's Vulnerability to Terrorism

Sept. 5, 2006 — Over Labor Day weekend, residents were abuzz about an article slamming the Virgin Islands' lack of preparedness for a terrorist attack, among other things. The piece appeared in the British magazine, The Economist, and in the Canadian newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator.
The Economist titled its piece "America's Underbelly," while the Spectator went with "U.S. Virgin Islands: A sitting duck?" [While the Economist article is available only to site subscribers, readers can find the Spectator article here.]
Neither article carries a byline and both quote unnamed sources. The Economist's Web site indicates it runs anonymous articles because it believes "that what is written is more important than who writes it."
Despite this, the Source has been able to confirm that the piece was written by former Assistant Attorney General Martin "Marty" Alperen, who lived on St. John until he moved to Colorado Springs a few years ago.
The article draws on thesis research Alperen did while studying for a master's degree in homeland security at the Naval Postgraduate School.
"My thesis is much more critical than that watered-down article," he said via cell phone from California, where he was waiting for a plane to depart for Colorado Springs.
Alperen said he was surprised to hear about the fuss the article raised but was glad it opened up the topic to discussion. It is not the first time Alperen has commented on the situation. In December 2005 the Source interviewed him about homeland security specific to the fences that had been erected at Red Hook and Cruz Bay ferry docks. (See "Alperen Says Ferry Dock Fence is Completely Ineffective").
Government House aide James O'Bryan called the Economist article an exaggeration of a lot of issues. "It's like a cheap shot," he said.
O'Bryan said he didn't think the problems outlined in the articles were unique to the Virgin Islands. And he said that while officials know the territory is vulnerable, it is much better prepared to handle homeland security issues than it was before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
O'Bryan said that while many improvements have been made, he acknowledged the V.I. National Guard is now short staffed, particularly on St. Thomas, because its members are on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
O'Bryan said that last week, V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency Director Howard Baker, Homeland Security Director Mel Vanterpool and Delegate Donna M. Christensen met with Rear Adm. Rick Houck from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to discuss homeland security issues.
He said that the territory is ahead of many other jurisdictions in developing a homeland security plan.
While no one at The Economist could be reached for comment, Jack McGowan, editor of the Discover pages at the Spectator, said his paper subscribes to The Economist news service through The New York Times.
"We felt it was a very interesting story. We were intrigued by it," he said, adding that articles from The Economist are very accurate and highly reliable.
The Tourism Department's marketing manager, Steve Bornn, said he was "shocked," adding that he'd like to know why the article was published with so little in the way of facts.
"It could be anywhere," he said, indicating that many other places face issues similar to those found in the Virgin Islands.
The article begins by pointing out that the territory is "perhaps America's most vulnerable point" when it comes to terrorism.
Christensen said that she would use this article, which states that "illegal aliens land in the Virgin Islands openly and regularly, yet they are rarely caught," to bolster the case for a border patrol unit for the territory.
She said that while illegal aliens who are apprehended seem to be mainly looking for economic opportunity, she's concerned about the ones that slip through.
The articles quote an unnamed U.S. Customs official who indicates that organizations use the Virgin Islands to get people into the states.
The article's author indicates that terrorists could use the seaplanes that fly between St. Thomas and St. Croix as a weapon to attack cruise ships because the passengers are not screened.
"That's not true," Seaborne Airlines President Omer ErSelcuk said.
According to ErSelcuk, the airline picks random flights to screen every passenger, even though the law does not require it for inter-island flights.
ErSelcuk said the company would screen more flights but needs assistance from V.I. Port Authority officers in order to do so, in case the screening turns up a problem. "But the resources aren't available," he said.
ErSelcuk noted that a terrorist bent on getting into the seaplane's cockpit would first have to get past the passengers, whom he said would stop the attacker from proceeding.
ErSelcuk said that in the unlikely event a terrorist commandeered a seaplane with the intent of attacking a cruise ship, the seaplane wouldn't do much damage to the ship, adding that ferries are a bigger threat to cruise ships.
The article goes on to say that: emergency services are "primitive in the extreme" and that the police department is undertrained and underequipped, with law enforcement inconsistent and sporadic. And the article states that the police force as a whole is not trusted.
Police Department spokeswoman Shawna Richards said the Police Department would not respond to the article's allegations.
The article also indicates that the territory's problems are compounded by racism, poverty, stark and increasing economic disparity, and poor education.
"A large and unskilled labor pool finds few jobs to do. Addiction to drugs is common, and substance abuse is accepted and even routine," indicates the article.
The article then observes that there is a lack of cooperation between government agencies and a lack of community among the people at large.
Using St. John's bars as an example, the author writes that "West Indians hang out at Mooies bar, Cap's Place is almost exclusively for Dominicans and St. Lucians prefer Tony's mobile food van."
Bornn said it was too soon to tell if the article will impact the territory's tourism. "I am ever mindful of the delicate nature of the product," he said.
St. John resident and historian Chuck Pishko, who forwarded one of many copies of the article received by the Source, said he agreed that the cruise ships that call in the territory were vulnerable to a terrorist attack.
"If they could take out the Cole …" he said, referring to the U.S. Navy ship attacked in 2000 while docked in Yemen.
He said he also agreed that the illegal alien issue was a problem but disagreed with the article's other allegations.
"Poor education is being worked on, and some people are doing very well," he said. Pishko added that the writer's contention that the "large, unskilled labor pool finds few jobs to do," just isn't true, noting that there are plenty of jobs for people without skills at good wages.
Pishko also said he doesn't see that drug addiction and substance abuse are factors for most of the population.
He also said that, particularly on St. John, the community does sometimes come together. "Churches are a unifying force," he said.
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