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Town focussed on making US safer -

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Town focussed on making US safer

Reporter: Mark Simkin

MAXINE MCKEW: With memories of the September 11 attacks still fresh, the London bombings sent a
chill through the United States. The US Government is spending billions of dollars trying to make
the country safer and there's heated debate about how far it should go. But the focus isn't just on
prevention. An entire town has been turned into the nation's premier anti-terrorism training camp.
North America correspondent Mark Simkin spent several days in New Mexico and filed this report.

MARK SIMKIN: In the middle of the New Mexico desert stands a tiny town unlike any other. It could
be the most dangerous place in the United States. Scenes like these are everyday events. Playas is
under attack and under siege. It's known as the "terror town" - a haven for suicide bombers. Where
briefcases are booby-trapped and the local bus service is one way. They're all exercises,
sophisticated simulations run by New Mexico Tech on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security.
In the so-called war against terror, Playas is a boot camp and the US a potential battlefield.

MATT A MAYER, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY: We're at war. They can make lots of mistakes, we can
only afford to make one. So it's a tough game but we do think they're very energised and still very
determined to strike again at the US on US soil and so we do everything we can to stop that
occurring.

MARK SIMKIN: These men and women are the first responders. The police, firefighters and rescue
workers who are likely to be the first on the scene if there's another terrorist attack on American
soil. They've come to Playas to learn about explosives. The letter contains a few dozen grams of
plastic explosive. It seems innocuous, like some kind of children's putty, but it packs a deadly
punch. Officials here believe another terrorist attack is inevitable and that the booby-traps, car
bombs and suicide bombers being used in Iraq could soon appear on American soil.

MATT A MAYER: Anybody who thinks that if Al Qaeda could get its hands on a nuclear device, get into
this country and detonate it and that they wouldn't, doesn't belong working in this business and
doesn't belong in a reasonable, rational debate because that's just silliness to think that Al
Qaeda wouldn't.

MARK SIMKIN: The students are loading a car with 200 kilograms of ammonium nitrate, much like
Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma. The explosion is massive. You can feel the heat kilometres away
and yet the Oklahoma blast was 10 times more powerful. James Wilson was one of if first on the
scene in Oklahoma. The impact was so great he now takes annual leave to teach at Playas.

JAMES WILSON, TRAINER: I think it is something we have to live with forever now. I mean, even if we
solve some of the problems we have in the Middle East now, there is going to be other terrorist
organisations. It's just something that as a culture we're going to have to deal with from now on
and just something we need to be prepared for.

MARK SIMKIN: The trainers believe that the course has already stopped terrorist attacks and saved
lives. One graduate was recently called out to investigate a strange smell.

VAN ROMERO, NEW MEXICO TECH: They went in and investigated and found out there was some jugs of
urine had been left in this apartment. Most people didn't think anything of it. This person who had
gone through our bomb class said, "Wait a second, that's the ingredients for urinary nitrate, that
could be a bomb ingredient." They brought in the bomb squad and sure enough there were all of the
ingredients you needed to make urinary nitrate, there were plans and maps of tunnels and bridges in
the New Jersey area.

MARK SIMKIN: Playas was built on a copper mine. But the mine closed five years ago and Playas
became a virtual ghost town. The population fell from 1,000 to just 50. The trainers came to the
rescue, buying the entire town for $5 million. On camera, everyone we spoke to was full of praise
for Playas, but off camera some of the locals were much more critical. They say they are being
terrorised themselves, forced to live restricted lives and threatened with eviction if they don't
follow orders. It's a fraught question - to what extent should liberty be curtailed by security?
Just weeks after September 11, Congress passed the Patriot Act giving the Government greater powers
to spy, search and intercept. At the end of the year, some of the Act's provisions expire and
there's growing debate about whether they should be re-enacted. The FBI wants to increase its
power, lobbying for the right to access personal financial, medical and even library records
without court approval. Critics say civil liberties are being unnecessarily curtailed. Supporters
believe safety should come first. As the people in Playas know first hand, the so-called war on
terror isn't just being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's also being waged much closer to home.
Mark Simkin, Lateline.