'Underwear Bomber' tests security of federal courthouse

By John Minnis

Legal News

Downtown commuters arriving to work Jan. 8 were surprised, if not irritated, to find West Lafayette and West Fort Streets at the federal building closed and barricaded. High up in a tower and on foot, U.S. marshals and Detroit police monitored pedestrians, protesters and the simply curious.

Inside the federal courthouse, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a.k.a. the "Underwear Bomber," was being arraigned before Magistrate Judge Mark Randen on six charges, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction -- a bomb concealed in his underwear.

The 23-year-old Nigerian attempted to blow up a jetliner bound from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day with a bomb hidden in his shorts. Instead of exploding, the bomb caught fire and badly burned the hapless alleged terrorist.

While it only took Abdulmutallab a few minutes to enter his not guilty pleas, it took much longer to erect and dismantle the barricades and get traffic back to normal.

The security measures were the work of the U.S. Marshals Service, said U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gerald Rosen, Eastern District of Michigan. Also taking part in security efforts are the Government Services Administration, the building's landlord; the Federal Protective Service, now part of the Department of Homeland Security, and the court's Security Committee, headed by Judge John Corbett O'Meara.

"Certainly since 9/11, it has been one of our most active committees," Rosen said of O'Meara's committee. "With the exception of spur of the moment, the committee handles security measures."

The "front line" of the court's security, Rosen said, are the CSOs -- court security officers -- made up of retired police officers who watch the doors, staff the metal detection equipment and walk the perimeter of the building.

"That's where we saw a change last year," said Court Administrator David Weaver. "One of several additional court security measures was to take up the perimeter role instead of the Federal Protective Service."

On the day-to-day, case-to-cases basis, Rosen said, it is the marshals who make the initial security call that will be needed. That includes whether a judge will require a protective detail.

"The committee looks at the big picture," Rosen said.

Security concerns at the Theodore Levin United States Courthouse are what might be expected for a 78-year-old building, one of the oldest federal courthouses in use.

"One security challenge the building has is the setback, 11 to 12 feet," Rosen said, "which is not very much."

Consequently, when additional security is required, such as when the Underwear Bomber was arraigned, marshals have to "push back" the perimeter by erecting barriers and bringing in bomb-sniffing dogs, which can detect far more than explosives.

Security measures sometimes frustrate the media. Such was the case in January when the "Christmas Bomber" (a.k.a. Underwear or Diaper Bomber) was arraigned. Because of the large number of media attending the arraignment, court officials decided to stick with its normal rules of not allowing cell phones or laptops.

The balance between security and public accessibility is a delicate one, Rosen said.

"We are a public building," he said.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks resulted in security changes everywhere, Judge O'Meara said, including the federal courts.

Not all threats come from terrorists.

The safety of judges and their families was heightened in 2005 following the killing of a Chicago U.S. District Court judge's husband and mother. The killer was reportedly angry because the judge had dismissed his medical malpractice lawsuit.

"That put a lot of things together for people in Washington," O'Meara said. "It got the attention of people worried about the security of judges."

In January, a disgruntled man who had been denied Social Security benefits killed a retired police officer working as a court security officer at the federal courthouse in Las Vegas.

The shooting occurred on the heels of a report issued by the Justice Department's inspector general that found the number of threats to federal judges and prosecutors jumped from 592 in 2003 to 1,278 in 2009, a six-year high.

In 2003 while presiding over a terrorism case, United States v. Koubriti -- the "Detroit Sleeper Cell" case -- Judge Rosen himself received a couple of threats. The case began the same day the Iraq War started, March 20, 2003, Rosen said.

"It was as big as the Christmas Bomber case," he said.

It is difficult to determine how serious threats are. Rosen chose a "soft detail" on that occasion so as not to be as disruptive to his family.

"It becomes part of the job," he said.

Rosen was forced to overturn the 2003 convictions when it was discovered the prosecution had concealed exculpatory evidence. He further apologized to the men on behalf of the U.S. government.

The anthrax scare of 2001 also impacted courthouse security. Rosen said some letters were received that contained a suspect substance that, fortunately, was not anthrax. However, the scare warranted changes in how the mail is handled in the courthouse.

Prior to the anthrax scare, U.S. Postal Service carriers delivered the mail throughout the courthouse. Following, the scare, the court set up a system where the mail is received in a secure location and sorted prior to court employees receiving it.

"We were the first to set up a secure, in-house mail entry system," Weaver said.

Since security efforts extend beyond the courthouse, the Detroit Police Department plays a big part setting up a perimeter, as well keeping court employees and visitors safe when walking to and from parking locations.

O'Meara commended DPD commanders who called for a meeting in December to discuss court security issues and to offer their cooperation.

"We all came out of that meeting with a very good feeling that when we have external issues, we are going to get great support from the Detroit Police Department," O'Meara said.

Even civil cases can raise security concerns. Cases in point were those involving the 1998 newspaper strike.

"There was a lot of emotion," O'Meara said. "A lot was at stake."

"Anything that is high-profile, whether criminal or civil," Rosen said, "will provoke the threat of violence."

Since cases are assigned randomly, all judges get their share of high-profile cases.

"The only thing we do where everybody goes away happy," Rosen said, "is naturalization ceremonies."

Extraordinary security involving high-profile cases, such as that of the Underwear Bomber, can be costly. Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the NYPD put the price tag for security due to 9/11-related trials at $216 million.

No comparable estimates have been floated concerning the Detroit terrorism cases.

Rosen said the costs are borne by the U.S. Marshals and Federal Protective Services and the various law enforcement agencies involved.

"In 2003," Rosen said, "the Marshals Service incurred a lot of costs. It was a six-week trial."

The costs are also borne, Rosen said, by the local businesses that are disrupted when streets are closed, barricades erected and the perimeter extended.

Meanwhile, the Underwear Bomber is awaiting trial in the Federal Correctional Institution in Milan. A status conference is set for June 22

"Judge Nancy Rosen has the Christmas Bomber case," Rosen said. "It's not clear he will be here for the June status hearing."

Published: Tue, Jun 1, 2010