A counterterror medical team based in Denver is supposed to be able to launch in hours after an attack. But FEMA cuts may curb that capability.
A Denver-based federal counterterrorism team charged with saving
lives after nerve gas, nuclear or dirty-bomb attacks is facing its
own challenges that threaten its ability to quickly respond.
“If getting there early is going to save lives, we are not going
to save as many lives,” said Dr. Charles Goldstein, commander of
the 90-member unit.
The team of doctors, nurses and paramedics – a unique unit in the
107-team National Disaster Medical System – is supposed to be able
to mobilize within hours, then fly into chaos and work through the
crucial first few days after an attack to contain casualties.
But overspending has mired the system in debt, forcing the
suspension of funding for such teams while Federal Emergency
Management Agency supervisors scramble to sort out irregularities.
Team members say the problems threaten to compromise their work in
a disaster by impeding maintenance of equipment, limiting paid
training and increasing the time it takes to prepare to go.
The Denver team now requires eight hours to mobilize, two hours
more than the FEMA standard, for lack of a functioning centralized
pager-notification system, Goldstein said. He blames poor FEMA
More than a year after Hurricane Katrina called FEMA’s management
into question, the agency’s stewardship of the disaster medical
system “is dysfunctional and complex,” Goldstein said.
The problems have shaken the entire National Disaster Medical
System, which was formed during the Cold War as a prized asset of
the Public Health Service.
FEMA took over the system after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks amid
concerns that terrorists would launch more attacks inside the
United States. Congress gave it $34 million a year. It includes
teams with specialized capabilities ranging from handling heaps of
dead bodies to helping distressed animals.
Now – on orders from the White House – the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services is poised to take back the system as part
of a post-Katrina reorganization.
Three teams in nation
Goldstein’s team operates out of a beige warehouse in north Denver
holding millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and vehicles. It is
one of three elite medical teams in the system. Others are
positioned in Los Angeles and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
It is the nation’s only team configured to travel on short notice
by air using collapsible gear that fits into easily transportable
Its mission is responding to terrorist attacks involving weapons of
mass destruction, though all teams in the system can work after
natural disasters and other crises as well. The Denver team worked
in Houston for two weeks after Katrina.
But team spending on training and maintenance so exceeded the
system’s budget that FEMA supervisors shut down funding in
September. The deficit amount “is still being reviewed,” said
Jack Beall, chief of the system at FEMA, in response to written
questions from The Denver Post.
Goldstein said that he couldn’t say how much he spent this year but
that the total doesn’t exceed his roughly $800,000 annual budget
“They’ve never told me how much money I’m allowed to spend” in
2006, he said.
Team members are classified as “intermittent federal employees”
and until recently received from $13 to $50 an hour, depending on
their skill level, for work devoted to the team. As a doctor,
Goldstein, 59, said he has collected $50 an hour for 24 hours a
week of work outside his private medical practice to run the team –
about $57,600 a year.
If FEMA officials “tell me what the rules are, I’m going to play
by them,” he said. “But they are not telling us what the rules
are. And then they keep changing them midstream.
“We are doing things, utilizing our best judgment, to accomplish
the mission and keep our teams in a state of appropriate readiness
Outside work questioned
Some units of the National Disaster Medical System, including the
Denver-based team, solicit additional outside funding. Goldstein
arranged a $75,000-a-year sponsorship from the Hospital Corporation of America. At FEMA headquarters, Beall said the sponsorship is illegal under federal rules to guard against conflicts of interest.
Said Goldstein: “We weren’t told we can’t do that. We were told
there were potential conflicts of interest. They said they were
going to investigate teams individually. That never went
The Denver team formed a nonprofit foundation after the Sept. 11
attacks to raise money and do outside work. This nonprofit sought
and won a $600,000 state government contract to run a database and
train local medical volunteers.
FEMA officials said teams can do outside work like this and accept
payment as long as they are not acting in their federal capacity.
It’s unclear whether that means team members can work together and
use federally funded equipment.
Now the interruption of funding threatens response capabilities.
For example, Goldstein said, his 13 vehicles no longer are fully
maintained, and crews are hard-pressed to handle tedious but
crucial tasks such as charging more than 425 batteries that run
respirators, air-monitoring devices and other tools.
Limited funding resumed this month, but the Denver team now
operates at “a sub-optimal level,” Goldstein announced in a
recent memo to team members.
At FEMA headquarters in Washington, new managers hired after the
Hurricane Katrina debacle acknowledged problems with the disaster
medical teams. They say they’re investigating and scrambling to put
in order a system the nation could need any day.
Supervisors cut off funds in September because “a number of teams
had overspent their budgets,” said Glenn Cannon, director of
FEMA’s response division.
Team leaders “got in trouble because they tried to make it like
there were full-time positions when in fact there weren’t,” Cannon
said, declining to single out specific teams.
“Now,” Cannon said, “we will watch, much more closely, the
spending rates of the teams.”
U.S. Health and Human Services officials who will take over the
disaster-response system in January said they’ll have lawyers
review all FEMA decisions.
The system “needs strengthening,” said Public Health Service Rear
Adm. Dr. Craig VanDerwagen, an assistant secretary for public
health emergency preparedness.
Maintaining an elite team that can fly into a crisis within four
hours is essential, VanDerwagen said.
Team members around the country “are appropriately anxious,
perhaps frustrated, and somewhat angry because of the movement back
and forth (between agencies) over the past two years,” he said.
Where the cuts will hurt
Now, after the sudden suspension of funding, Denver team members
train on a volunteer basis. This month, managers were allotted a
combined total of 48 paid hours a week to coordinate training and
keep equipment ready, Goldstein said.
“There are things that are going to suffer,” he said. “I have 13
vehicles that are supposed to be driven 50 miles a month. I can’t
pay people to do that anymore. … Is fuel going to start leaking
from one of my trucks because it hasn’t been lubricated?”
Last Sunday, a dozen or so nurses, doctors and paramedics gathered
for training in their rented 16,600-square-foot warehouse, east of
Interstate 25, amid millions of dollars’ worth of gear, from drug
supplies to nerve gas detectors.
Clad in chocolate-colored protective overalls, lime-green rubber
boots and double gloves, they practiced inserting breathing tubes
into a mannequin while wearing gas masks that made their voices
sound pinched and faraway.
“Like working underwater,” said team member Dr. David Levine, 57.
Team members set up collapsible stretchers. They set up a
collapsible decontamination tent and an accordion-like apparatus
for moving unconscious victims on backboards through a scrubbing
zone. They reviewed procedures for jamming injectors filled with
atropine, a nerve gas antidote, into their thighs.
Now, with federal funding reduced and seemingly uncertain, some
team leaders seek new jobs to make up lost income.
“I can do this for a couple months, but then it will start getting
tight,” said team administrator Wendy Colon, whose paid hours were
cut from 40 a week to 24. “And there are some things that aren’t
Yet despite uncertainties, every terrorism-related news bulletin,
such as the recent one about possible radiological bombs in
football stadiums, sends team member Edie Lindeburg, 40, bolting to
a spare room in her house, where her black duffel bag sits ready to
“I run and check my equipment. I think: ‘Did I do the battery
check? Who do I have to notify if I go?”‘ said Lindeburg, an
18-year-veteran hospital and emergency room nurse.
“I’d be scared to death” to walk into the scene of a nuclear or
chemical attack, she said. “But I still am ready to do that.”
Detainee tries to force feds’ hand
A man from the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands jailed for more
than two years after the FBI targeted him as a possible
Denver-based terrorist – but never charged him – has begun a
last-ditch legal gambit to resume his life with his U.S.-citizen wife and four kids.
Still in prison in Colorado, Haroon Rashid has filed a motion in
federal court to force the government to prosecute him.
It’s an unusual effort to break out of the legal limbo that has
derailed his life and the lives of others jailed since Sept. 11,
2001, in the government’s war on terrorism.
After charging 441 detainees in terrorism and terrorism-related
cases, federal authorities have won 261 convictions, a new Justice
Department study found. Most of the convictions were for petty
offenses, not terrorism.
An undetermined number of suspects, including Rashid, still are
detained. About 150 cases are pending.
U.S. officials say secret evidence supports a hard-line approach.
Prosecutors are trying “to prevent terrorist acts before they can
occur,” Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said.
But civil-liberties leaders question basic fairness.
“Yes, we want to be safe, but do we want to sacrifice our
liberties in the process? … If you want to always be safe, you
could lock everybody up. But that’s not what our system is based
on,” said Judy Rabinovitz, senior attorney for the American Civil
Rashid made his move, through his attorney Jeff Pagliuca, after
U.S. Attorney Troy Eid filed a motion Oct. 2 to drop a lesser
immigration charge the government was pursuing as the FBI’s initial
terrorism case evaporated, court records show.
By dropping the immigration charge, Eid had planned to clear the
way for Rashid to be deported back to his native Pakistan for
misdemeanor assault. In 2003, a jury found Rashid guilty of
assaulting a street-gang member he said threatened his kids. He
received a 401-day sentence that was mostly suspended.
Now Rashid’s motion – to block federal prosecutors from dropping
their case – aims to delay his deportation and further clear his
record. He’s been held in federal custody at his lawyer’s request
to avoid deportation until the federal case is resolved.
Rashid comes from Quetta, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, an
unsettled hotbed of anti-U.S. sentiment where Taliban forces are on
the rise. His wife and children say they dread moving there if he
is deported but would do so to be together.
“It doesn’t do anybody in our country any good to have this man
deported back to Pakistan on a misdemeanor,” Pagliuca said. “…
I’d rather have Mr. Rashid here taking care of his children.”
Chief U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock must decide how to handle
this jam – with feds asking to drop their charges and Rashid asking
for a trial to exonerate himself and let his family stay a bit
longer in the country.
Rashid already has served more time in prison than would be
possible if prosecutors won a conviction on the lesser immigration
charge they’re now trying to drop.
He immigrated to the United States legally in November 1997. His
wife, Saima Saima, and her father, Abdul Qayyum, are naturalized
U.S. citizens. Rashid worked driving an airport shuttle as they
raised their kids.
Federal agents began investigating him and his family in 2002 after
President Bush and then- Attorney General John Ashcroft vowed to
use every legal tool they could to detain and prosecute possible
terrorists. Rashid had visited Pakistan that year.
Denver-based FBI Special Agent Mike Castro testified at a 2003
detention hearing that there was evidence Rashid bragged he had
fought against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and that he was in
Colorado awaiting orders to carry out violent acts.
Said Pagliuca: “I don’t believe it. Why didn’t they charge him as
Castro and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Ross
Godwin, members of a joint terrorism task force, went to California
and questioned Imran Khan, son of Rashid’s father-in-law by a
previous marriage, who had entered the United States in August 1997
with Rashid’s wife.
The agents sought Kahn as a source on Rashid and others. Though
they lacked a warrant, they arrested Khan and hauled him back to
Colorado in shackles, court records show.
In a 2004 court order, Judge Babcock stated that “the terrorism
implications of this case have since evaporated” and that “there
was confusion about how and under what authority an FBI and
(immigration) agent working in concert in a mixed civil and
criminal investigation should conduct their investigation.”
Federal officials recently have rebuffed repeated efforts to
interview Rashid at the Englewood federal prison. He was held
previously at a federal immigration prison in Aurora.
Family members can visit, including a toddler born during Rashid’s
The older children regularly ask about their father and beg to stay
in their schools.
U.S. authorities “are breaking this family. We’ve been patient. …
This is very unfair,” Rashid’s wife said in a Denver mosque.
“They still think he’s a terrorist.”
An official says the fence planned for the Southwest land border “needs to extend into the water” as smugglers shift directions.
Colorado Springs – As the nation fortifies its Southwest land
border to stop illegal immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere, the
U.S. Coast Guard is bracing for diverted migrants at sea – and
preparing a maritime virtual fence.
The plans call for surveillance drones that can augment radar to
spot smugglers of people or drugs on the oceans, combined with
patrols by helicopters equipped with mounted machine guns.
Tightening U.S. enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border “needs to
extend into the water. That is the goal,” said Adm. Thad Allen,
commandant of the Coast Guard, in an interview here Wednesday at
the annual Homeland Defense Symposium.
“How far east and west we will go remains to be seen,” he said.
Immigrants increasingly try to enter the United States by sea as
well as across the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico land border, according to
government apprehension data. President Bush has said he’ll approve
a massive new fence ordered by Congress along the boundary, in
addition to adding new Border Patrol agents with National Guard
“Given what’s going on along the Southwest border, we are watching
with great interest, and we will be prepared to act,” said Allen,
57, a Tucson native who has led the Coast Guard since May.
Today the Coast Guard and its fleet of 250 cutters and 144
helicopters increasingly patrols hundreds of miles out from U.S.
California-based crews in recent years have targeted a booming
migrant-smuggling business from Ecuador, apprehending thousands a
year. These operations often are tied into military operations and
the immigration enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland
Security, which in 2003 took over the Coast Guard.
The number of interdictions of U.S.-bound immigrants at sea more
than doubled, increasing from 4,136 in 2001 to 10,279 last year,
Coast Guard data show. A majority are caught in the Caribbean Sea,
including 2,067 Cubans this year, spokesman Steven Blando said.
Early Sunday, a San Diego-based Coast Guard cutter intercepted a 35-foot sailboat a few miles offshore carrying 19 suspected illegal immigrants from Mexico, including a child, said Petty Officer Brian Leshak, spokesman for
the Coast Guard in California. The migrants surrendered and were
handed over to border police.
A new maritime virtual fence in the works would rely on expanded
radar and surveillance from drone aircraft – known as “unmanned
aerial vehicles,” or UAVs – that could spot more immigrants and
drug smugglers at sea, Allen said.
New arrangements with other countries require more maritime vessels
to carry transponder beacons that enable easy tracking. U.S.
officials say this is crucial in helping to weed out which boats
U.S. agents might want to intercept and board.
Coast Guard helicopters now must be armed, as well, and
retrofitting them with machine-gun mounts has begun, Allen said. Since 1979, all Coast Guard crews boarding ships have carried weapons. But helicopters generally haven’t had firepower.
“We use nonlethal force to compel compliance. That’s in keeping
with the Constitution and our laws,” Allen said. “(With)
disabling fire, you are not attempting to harm anybody. You are
attempting to disable engines. Any boat that fails to stop, we can
use warning shots and disabling fire against.”
Immigrant-rights advocates bristled at the prospect of increased
enforcement at sea on top of the land-based efforts.
“That kind of enforcement is not a solution. A solution is a
sensible immigration system that deals with people already here and
gives a mechanism to bring people here legally in the future,”
said Joan Friedland, policy attorney at the National Immigration
Law Center in Washington. “For people who may be fleeing for their
lives or for a better life to be greeted with a machine gun strikes
me as horrific.”
Rise in deportations floods detention centers, courts
The attorney for a Salvadoran jailed in Colorado says custody should be based on “heinous crimes,” not “misfortunes.”
As a terrified 13-year-old, huddling against his mother, Jose
Mendez escaped El Salvador after his father was murdered. She’d
received death threats and a warning: Bad men would kidnap her sons
and cut off their fingers.
When they landed in the United States, immigration officials
allowed them in. Within months, Mendez was speaking English in
He excelled in high school while also holding down a full- time
job. After graduating, he worked his way up to running Qdoba
restaurants around Denver. He enrolled in college, trying to be the
first in his family to earn a degree.
But today the same U.S. system that for a decade nurtured Mendez,
now 23, labors to deport him back to an El Salvador he barely
He has been held without bail for 3 1/2 months in an overflowing
immigration jail – one person among thousands nationwide awaiting
The U.S. government is deporting record numbers of immigrants as
Congress and the public demand enforcement. It’s straining the
immigration system to the breaking point, sweeping up immigrants
such as Mendez, who has no criminal record, along with convicts and
raising questions about fairness.
The surging deportations overload the detention centers where
immigrants are held. Immigration courts also are swamped.
Next month, a federal judge must step in and handle the Mendez
case. This happens more and more as immigration-court decisions
increasingly are appealed.
The immigration bureaucracy that ordered Mendez arrested, based on
documents from 2001 when he was a teenager, had also issued him
work permits and welcomed his mother and brothers under a program
to help people from war-, flood- and earthquake-ravaged El
Tracing this one immigrant’s path – from a scared boy fleeing his
country to a scared man forced to sleep on the floor of a jammed
jail – reveals much about how a strained system can turn lives
“There really are some very deep injustices taking place,” said
Doris Meissner, former chief of the U.S. Immigration and
Naturalization Service and now a senior analyst at the Migration
Policy Institute, a bipartisan think tank in Washington. “The
scales are out of balance right now.”
The government response: “We are restoring integrity through
aggressive enforcement,” Homeland Security spokesman Marc Raimondi
said. “There’s certainly a lot of work to be done on the
Jails, courts overwhelmed
A Denver Post review of federal immigration records found:
U.S. deportations of immigrants have increased by 78 percent from
99,213 in fiscal year 1999 to 177,436 so far this year. A growing
share of those deported committed no crimes while in the United
States – 53 percent this year, up from 37 percent in 2001 – even
though Bush administration officials repeatedly have said their
priority is deporting criminals.
The nation’s 24,331-bed system for detaining immigrants now is so
crowded that officials requested an extra $541 million to expand
detention and removal operations, on top of the $3.8 billion a year
taxpayers devote to immigration enforcement.
New detainees at Colorado’s 356-bed regional detention center in
Aurora, run by contractors, often must sleep on the floor.
Immigration officials said they’ve housed 413 immigrants – 16
percent over capacity – using mattresses on the floor and other
“portable beds.” Federal agents who arrested 120 suspected
illegal workers in a raid at Buckley Air Force Base on Sept. 20 had
to bus most of them immediately to Texas.
Immigration courts face such a surge that judges recently testified
in Congress that fairness is threatened. The government’s 212
immigration judges completed 352,287 cases in fiscal year 2005 – an
average of 1,662 cases per judge, 35 percent more than in 2001 with
only four more judges.
The immigration-court workload in Colorado has doubled. Three
judges and their staff handle more than 2,600 cases a year.
Attorneys face four-month waits to have cases heard.
Repeated requests by administrators for more judges and staff
failed to draw help from Justice Department officials in Washington
who run the immigration- court system – which, unlike most courts,
is part of the executive branch of government.
The court crunch means more detainees wait longer in jail, at
Attorneys increasingly challenge immigration-court rulings,
appealing 11,741 decisions to outside federal courts in 2005, more
than six times as many appeals as in 2001, according to federal
court records. When independent federal judges in recent years
reviewed immigration cases, they reversed from 4 percent to 14
percent of immigration- court decisions each year.
“Everyone who looks at the system, whether it’s the immigration
courts or the processing of green cards or asylum petitions, agrees
it is overwhelmed,” said Steve Camarota at the Center for
Immigration Studies, a leading advocate for tougher immigration
enforcement. “… If we want to detain more people and increase the
number of people we deport, we don’t have the resources to do
Legal entry for Mendez
Today’s strained immigration system seems a far cry from the one
that once welcomed the world’s needy and harnessed their energy.
The Mendez story began that way.
In April 1996, Mendez was 12, at school in San Miguel, El Salvador,
when the principal called his name, he said in an interview. Armed
assailants had sneaked into his family’s garage and murdered his
father, Nelson Mendez, who ran a packaging business.
Then his mother, Marta Mendez, began receiving death threats over
the telephone and from unfamiliar visitors. One warned that
kidnappers would snatch her boys, cut off their fingers and mail
them to her one by one to extort money.
The next day the family fled, lying flat on the floor of an uncle’s
pickup as he drove to El Salvador’s main airport.
Landing in Los Angeles around midnight, Mendez and his brothers
hung close by their mother. He remembers thinking: “Oh, God. We
are leaving everything behind. We are losing our house, our family.
Everything.” She told them: “Our life is more important.”
They entered legally – immigration officials had issued them
tourist visas – and stayed with an uncle before moving into a
converted garage. A stay-at- home mother before, Marta found work
cleaning and caring for a wealthy family’s kids.
But she failed to apply for asylum within a year as required, court
When she did apply in 1998 for herself and her sons, the
application sat for three years and was denied in 2001. She then
applied for her family to stay in the country under a program
President Bush announced in March 2001 for people from El Salvador.
Some 225,000 Salvadorans live legally in the United States under
Each year, Mendez and his brothers submitted photos and
fingerprints to re-register under the program, records show.
“In my mind, I was legally here,” Mendez said.
He moved to Colorado in 2001, working for Pizza Hut and Qdoba, the
booming chain of Mexican fast-food restaurants, where he soon was
promoted with the promise of running his own store. He enrolled at
Then, in June, immigration agents arrested him as he was opening
the Qdoba at West 50th Avenue and Kipling Street. They clamped
metal handcuffs on his wrists and led him away.
“They said: ‘You have a final order of deportation.’ … I just
could not believe it,” Mendez recalled.
At the immigration detention center, wardens gave Mendez two
blankets and told him to sleep on the floor. After three nights, he
was given a mattress on the floor for two more nights before a bunk
opened. Gang members bullied him, he said, and he’s been sick with
Court records show immigration agents arrested Mendez under an
order filed in 2001 when he was a teenager. Officials apparently
failed to process his initial 2001 application under the El
Salvador program until 2004, after he had re-registered three times
along with his mother and brothers, who were approved, records
Officials apparently then deemed Mendez ineligible because he
failed to submit fingerprints when re-registering in 2004, although
he had submitted fingerprints before.
Mendez’s brother hired Colorado immigration lawyer Kim Salinas. She
pushed the case before U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn, who is
scheduled to decide Nov. 7 whether to order immigration authorities
to release Mendez and review his case.
Jailing Mendez suggests “misplaced priorities,” Salinas said.
“There are people in the country who have committed heinous crimes
and could be in immigration custody. And there are people like this
kid, who had a series of misfortunes and who has no culpability in
any of this.”
Immigration officials “are doing their job,” Mendez said, but
deporting him “is unfair.”
Mendez said he dreads El Salvador: “No home, no family, no job.”
Gang members prey systematically on deportees from the United
“I don’t want to live in a country where I don’t trust people.
They took my father away and didn’t do anything about it, even to
investigate it,” Mendez said.
“Please let me stay here.”