Program enlists truckers to watch for terrorist activity

Sunday, August 15, 2004

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Gary Prewitt doesn't much look like the next line of defense in the fight against terrorism.

At 62, he is an over-the-road truck driver far removed from his days with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. But Prewitt is one of more than 10,000 truckers nationwide who have joined the anti-terrorism movement through a federally funded program called Highway Watch.

Prewitt hopes the voluntary endeavor, in which he and others in the program are asked to constantly be on the lookout for suspicious activities, might someday prevent the kind of tragedy that struck on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Truckers are the eyes and ears of everybody in America," said Prewitt, of Independence. "We see everything out there."

So the federal government decided to tap the industry.

In March, the Transportation Security Administration -- which is under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security -- awarded a $19.3 million contract to the American Trucking Associations and asked it to beef up its existing Highway Watch program. The goal is to enlist and train as many as 400,000 people by March and as many as 3 million over the next several years.

The participants won't just be truckers. They will be construction workers, tollbooth operators, bus drivers and people representing all walks of the highway sector.

What they are looking for is anything odd or suspicious that might be the root of terrorist activity: "broken-down" trucks parked near schools or malls, wires hanging from the sides of fuel tanks, people taking pictures of warehouses or power plants.

"Truckers are very good observers," said Mike Russell, vice president for public affairs with the Virginia-based American Trucking Associations. "Doing this is really just adding a facet to what we're doing anyway: Keeping an eye on what's in front of us. We can be millions of extra sets of eyes and ears for law enforcement."

The Highway Watch program started in May 1998. Originally, it was purely safety oriented and did not have a security or anti-terrorism component. Truckers were instructed to properly report crashes, bad weather, aggressive drivers and other safety concerns.

Almost immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, the security and anti-terrorism component was added. Now, on the heels of the contract with the Transportation Security Administration, Russell said the American Trucking Associations is ready to make Highway Watch an even greater priority and "do our very best to see that a truck is never used as a weapon."

Truckers who want to volunteer attend a two-hour seminar put on by law-enforcement officials or former FBI agents such as Jeff Beatty.

Beatty, who spent six years in the CIA's counterterrorism center, likes to begin his presentation by showing captured footage of terrorists plotting and practicing attacks on highways.

"That's a good attention-getter," he said.

Beatty warns volunteers against racial profiling, saying terrorist behavior could just as easily come from someone who looks like Timothy McVeigh as someone who looks like Osama bin Laden. Beatty advises the volunteers to be vigilant without being vigilantes, saying it is not their job to intervene physically.

"The key to this whole thing is good observation," Beatty said. "People generally feel powerless against terrorism. This takes away some of that powerlessness."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: