As the world commemorated the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks last week, the U.S. Virgin Islands suffered a blow to its image when an article outlining the territory’s vulnerability to a possible attack appeared in The Economist, a renowned international weekly news publication.
Entitled “The Virgin Islands: America’s Underbelly — A Lovely Place, and Woefully Unprepared for a Terrorist Attack”, the article ran in the September 2 edition of The Economist and on its Web site. The article can only be opened by subscribers on their internet site.
The same article under the title “U.S. Virgin Islands: A Sitting Duck?” was reprinted on Sep-tember 6 in the Canadian newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator and also appeared on its Web site, where the piece can be accessed by anyone. “Isolated, ill-managed and disorganized, they may be ripe for a terrorist attack,” was the subtitle of the Spectator’s article.
Penned by Former Assistant Attorney General
The article, which describes how easy it could be to launch an attack in the Virgin Islands from an explosives-laden fishing boat crashing into a cruise ship to a land-based anthrax attack during Carnival, does not include a by-line. It was, however, penned by former V.I. Assistant Attorney General Martin Alperen.
Alperen said he did not request his name be left off the article. It is The Economist’s policy not to identify authors of articles, ac-cording to the pulbication’s Web site.
“The main reason for anonymity is a belief that what is written is more important than who wrote it,” according to the publication’s Web site. “As Geoffrey Crowther, editor from 1938 to 1956, put it, anonymity keeps the editor ‘not the master but the servant of something far greater than himself.’”
Masters Degree In Homeland Security
Alperen worked as a prosecutor for the V.I. Justice Depart-ment for seven years before leaving two years ago to attend the U.S. Department of Home-land Security-sponsored Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgrad-uate School in California.
Alperen, who was a founding member of St. John Rescue, graduated in May with a Master of Arts degree in Security Studies and his thesis, titled “Towards a Homeland Security Strategy for the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Terrorism and Natu-ral Disasters Planning Group,” was printed in April.
Alperen sent copies of the thesis to V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen, V.I. Gover-nor Charles Turnbull and V.I. Senate President Lorraine Berry.
The article which ran in The Economist and Spectator was based on Alperen’s thesis and although it was heavily edited, the author said it is still accurate.
“I stand behind my article 100 percent,” he said. “Everything I state in my article is backed up in my thesis.”
The article includes a number of controversial statements about the Virgin Islands Police Depart-ment, border protection, emergency services and a variety of government officials.
“The police department is undertrained and underequipped and law enforcement is, at best, inconsistent and sporadic,” Alperen wrote in the article. “Although most officers are hardworking, complacency is endemic (drinking while driving is winked at here), and the force as a whole is not trusted.”
The territory’s biggest vulnerability lies in the VIPD, according to Alperen.
VIPD Needs Change
“The number one and number two things that need to be done are better police and better police community relations,” he said. “Law enforcement is a part of homeland security. The police have a terrible rapport with a large section of the population.”
“You can’t have effective homeland security without effective law enforcement,” Alperen added.
Border protection is another serious issue in the Virgin Islands, according to the attorney.
“One U.S. Customs man says that the islands, and St. John in particular, are ‘busy drop-off points for human smugglers,’” Alperen wrote in the article “America’s Underbelly.” “I maintain that the Virgin Islands is America’s wide open back door,” he said. “Once a terrorist has his or her foot on St. John, they have their foot in the door.”
“I quote declassified Central Intelligence Agency documents and Ivan Ortiz (spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement for Puerto Rico and the V.I.) who state it’s no secret that organizations are using St. John to get people into the United States,” Alperen continued.
The de-facto segregation of the community is another fundamental problem which leaves the territory vulnerable to terrorist attacks, the attorney contends in his article.
“Perhaps most important is the absence of a sense of community within and between government agencies and among people at large,” according to the article. “The population of the Virgin Islands comes from all over the world, but particularly from other Caribbean islands; the different groups remain unassimilated and self-contained, with their own meeting places and their own social circles.”
The lack of communication within the community hinders homeland security measures, Alperen explained.
“There is no rapport in the community — there is no unifying force,” he said. “I didn’t make up this idea. There are two people who wrote doctoral theses on this and I quoted them.”
“People need to intermingle and communicate,” said the attorney. “Many people in the community are suspicious of each other and separate. You always need community input and if the community doesn't communicate you won’t have that.”
There are a number of steps that will increase the security of the territory, Alperen said.
“The idea of community policing has been around since like the 1970s,” he said. “That needs to be instituted immediately.”
VIPD Needs “Immediate Overhaul”
Many improvements rest in the hands of the territorial governor, according to Alperen.
“The most important contribution would be for the governor to develop a unifying vision,” he said. “The vision must incorporate not just economic recovery, but social recovery and a new V.I. Police Department that would reflect community policing. The VIPD needs an immediate overhaul.”
If reorganized, Alperen contends that the VIPD could be the “premier intelligence fusion agency in the Caribbean.”
“Every citizen must be confident that information relayed to the VIPD or the Fire Department would be relayed up the chain and networked with other agencies,” he said. “It’s what we call seamless information sharing — up and down the chain of command.”
Information must be shared between different governmental agencies in order to increase security, Alperen explained.
“It’s not who needs to know, but who else needs to know,” he said. “Information must travel in all directions to as many agencies as possible. The Virgin Islands is such a small place that this is within grasp.”
More Federal Funding
Part of the problem also lies with the limited federal funding for territorial homeland security, the attorney added.
“I sent my thesis to government officials and volunteered to testify in front of the U.S. Congress to request additional funding,” Alperen said. “I am one of the nation’s leading experts in homeland security for the Virgin Islands now and I want to help the V.I. get as much funding as possible.”
The lack of federal funds translates to an over-taxed U.S. Border Protection branch in the territory.
“I’m not concerned with the illegal aliens, but what does concern me is the porous border,” he said. “If they can come in, who else can come in?”
With significant changes and additional federal funding, the Virgin Islands could be a safer place.
“I love the Virgin Islands and I hope that the issues I raise will establish dialogue within the community and foster positive change,” he said.
Alperen’s entire thesis is available at http://theses.nps.navy.mil/06Mar_Alperen.pdf.