Two things keep me awake at night: The threat of terrorism and wondering what, if anything, our federal government is doing about it.
Evidently, my interview with Atlanta television anchor Justin Farmer in Atlanta a few weeks ago about his reports of Mexican drug lords funneling illegal immigrants, drugs and – yes – terrorists into our country has a lot of you feeling the same way.
So when I got an opportunity to visit the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Brunswick recently with my friend Chuck Jones, a retired DeKalb County police lieutenant who lives on Saint Simons Island, I jumped at it. For Chuck, it was a busman’s holiday; for me, it was an eye-opener.
You would have to see the place to believe it.
First, a few factoids: the Glynn County location is the headquarters facility for FLETC and one of several in the United States, as well as Asia and Africa. Located on 1,600 acres with some 1,500 staff members, the place generally has some 3,500 agents from 88 federal organizations – FLETC calls them “partners” – in training most every day of the week. The groups are as diverse as the U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Division, the Secret Service, forest rangers, customs officials and federal air marshals, to name just a few.
The students get intensive firearms training, driver training, physical training and, interestingly, a lot of time spent examining the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution regarding search and seizure. I was comforted to hear how much focus they have on my current worry – high-tech terrorism, such as the bad guys disabling the electrical power grid, the financial system or the communications system in the country. They are ahead of me on this one.
The facilities are mind-boggling: Massive indoor firing ranges; a mock port of entry that would make you think you are in a major airport; a “neighborhood village” set up with cameras to record raids made on crack houses, pawn shops and biker hangouts. There is a mock restaurant and bar, a replica of an Iraqi village and a full-size courtroom where trainees face prosecutors and a judge and jury to defend their arrests. (Remember, the emphasis on the Fourth Amendment? It doesn’t do much good to make an arrest if you can’t make it stick.)
There is a place to blow up cars, investigate arson and rescue people via helicopters. There is even a moonshine still (non-working) and a meth lab (ditto). These people have thought of everything.
Locals are hired to play terrorists, thieves, druggies, government officials in need of protection, innocent citizens who look suspicious and so on. This isn’t your local theater production. How trainees and role players handle these exercises can mean life or death in the real world.
I told my hosts, who included assistant director Marcus Hill, property management head Danny Hutcheson and public affairs specialist Alicia Gregory, that I would cater them lunch if I didn’t hear from someone who will say, “Good for them, now tell me what they are doing to protect our borders?” The simple answer is they don’t hire border patrol officers or agents for any other federal agency or for the military. They train them. It is up to each agency to staff its own organization. It is up to FLETC to make them as proficient as possible.
On the grounds of the facility is a somber reminder of the danger federal agents face – a monument containing the names of 175 agents who attended FLETC over the past 40 years and were killed in the line of duty. Graduation ceremonies are held there. New staff and students visit there. Hutcheson even has his contractors gather at the monument to remind them that what they are doing is supporting a serious mission.
As I was leaving, I asked Alicia Gregory what she would like to say to you about FLETC and its work. Gregory answered, “I would say that we are making a difference. We are saving lives and protecting our country.”
My visit didn’t change my mind about one thing: Most of us still stick our heads in the sand and think terrorism will go away if we just don’t think about it.
Thankfully, FLETC knows how dangerous this world is and is making a huge effort to keep us safe. It is a first-class operation. I am glad I got the chance to see it for myself. I will sleep a little sounder tonight.
Yarbrough can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Ga., 31139.