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PROTECTING AMERICA FROM TERRORIST ATTACK
In D.C., Squad Always on Terror Alert

07/07/06

National Capital Response Squad Logo

It’s 8:50 a.m. on a Monday in Washington, D.C., the kind of promising spring morning where tourists plot their days under the National Mall’s majestic elms and professionals splurge on espresso to fuel up for the dawning workaday week. A few blocks from the Mall, an FBI agent in charge of responding to terror threats in the nation’s capital is somewhat less breezy in his assessment of the coming day. He’s thumbing through an urgent message vibrating on his wireless handheld.

“We’ve got a threat that’s causing some concern,” supervisory special agent Christopher Combs murmurs as he toggles the electronic device that keeps him and every member of his National Capital Response Squad in the loop.

There are no lazy mornings—or days for that matter—for Combs and his squad of 13 agents trained in SWAT, hazardous materials, crisis management, evidence collection and how to neutralize bombs and suspicious packages. The agents are part of the Washington Field Office’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, a highly trained contingent of agents and veteran law enforcement officials from 28 federal and local police agencies who work traditional terrorism investigations in addition to answering the call when things heat up.

“We’re responding multiple times a day,” says Combs, who has run the squad since February. When someone thought they heard gunshots in the U.S. Capitol garage in May, the team mobilized. A month earlier, a suspicious package at the city’s crowded train station during a Friday rush hour sent squad members to the scene. In most cases we play a supporting role to local authorities who have jurisdiction. “But if they determine it’s related to terrorism they call our guys right away,” Combs says.

The National Capital Response Squad was created in 1999 to respond to any terrorist event—real or perceived—in D.C. or Northern Virginia and to manage the scene. That there hasn’t been another attack on the nation’s capital since 2001 is little comfort to agents who respond to possible threats every day, assuming the worst and hoping for the best. The squad averages two or three suspicious package calls each week (sometimes in a day) and another five call-outs a week for suspicious white powder reports.

“Any anthrax or suspected WMD (weapon of mass destruction) we respond to,” Combs says, adding, in case there’s any doubt, that mailing phony anthrax and white powder is a severe offense. “If you put powder in a letter and mail it we’re going to come get you. It’s very time-intensive to investigate. The manpower you burn up on that is immense.”

When the squad’s not responding to calls members are working investigations or training other law enforcement agencies on SWAT, crime scene management, explosives and post-bomb blast investigations, evidence collection, and terrorist response.

For Agent Combs, the morning alert that scrawled across his handheld turned out to be nothing. But, as always, it was treated as legitimate until proven otherwise. It’s one of many that he and his team will have to assess and investigate—all in a day’s work in the nation’s capital.

In the coming weeks we’ll spotlight some of the other facets of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Washington, the FBI’s second largest field office. We’ll talk to bomb technicians, SWAT members, and learn about the role of the Rapid Deployment Team, which responds to calls for FBI assistance in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Stay tuned!