Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Warren Co. defends lockdown decision

FBI denies warning officials of any special threat

By Erica Solvig and Dan Horn
Enquirer staff writers

LEBANON - Warren County officials, facing scrutiny of their decision to lock down the administration building on election night, say they were responding to a terrorist threat that ranked a "10" on a scale of 1 to 10.

The information, which Commissioner Pat South said was previously deemed confidential, is coming out a week after the public was barred from viewing the Warren County vote count. The Ohio Secretary of State's office doesn't know of any other county in the state to impose such a restriction.

County officials initially said they feared that having reporters and photographers present could interfere with the ballot counting. They subsequently cited homeland security concerns.

Now, they say an FBI agent told them that Warren County ranked a "10" on a terrorism scale. However, state and federal homeland security officials said Tuesday they were unaware of any specific threat against the county.

County officials locked down the administration building on Justice Drive after the polls there had closed. Officials say having both a polling place and the board of elections in one location increased security concerns.

"It wasn't international terrorism that we were in fear of; it was more domestic terrorism," South said Tuesday. "I much prefer sitting here today telling you why we did implement security rather than why we didn't."

County board of elections officials had compiled a list of people who were approved for after-hours access, but that list didn't include reporters.

It also didn't include an approved ballot-count watcher.

"I was denied admission myself," said Jeff Ruppert, the Warren County counsel for the Kerry-Edwards campaign. "I had to present credentials."

Besides locking the doors, the county had two pickup trucks out front, police in the building and a bomb-sniffing dog.

While the administration building was the top security concern, other precautions were taken countywide, according to Frank Young, the county's emergency services director. That included asking local law enforcement to keep an eye on the various polling places.

Young said he recommended the security precautions after getting information from an FBI agent during a conversation about general Election Day threats. Young refused to identify the agent Tuesday.

The county passed on some precautions, such as use of metal detectors. Young declined to go into detail on security preparations.

Officials at the FBI, which oversees anti-terrorism activities in southern Ohio, said they received no information about a terror threat in Warren County.

"The FBI did not notify anyone in Warren County of any specific terrorist threat to Warren County before Election Day," FBI spokesman Michael Brooks said.

A spokeswoman for Ohio's top homeland security official, Public Safety Director Ken Morckel, knew of no heightened terror warning for either Warren County or any other Greater Cincinnati community on election night.

Earlier this year, federal homeland security officials issued a broad warning about potential terrorist strikes leading up to elections in the United States. Anti-terrorism experts said the warning was based on intelligence that indicated terror groups hoped to disrupt the elections.

Elections officials in many counties responded with tighter security measures, including metal detectors, police officers, identification badges and restricted access to some public areas.

Hamilton County's director of homeland security, Mike Snowden, said the goal was to improve security while allowing the public access to the board of elections.

"You can do it," Snowden said. "Hamilton County complied with the law and at the same time maintained security."

The Ohio Secretary of State's office provides advice, but leaves decisions about access to the ballot count to the local boards of elections "based on their facilities and their security plans," spokesman James Lee said.

Since the lockdown was first reported in the Enquirer, Warren County's situation has gotten national publicity and drawn criticism from across the country. But South said she didn't regret the county's decision.

"Was it overkill?" South said. "That was hotly debated before we even made the decision. In hindsight, yeah, it was probably overkill."

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