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How NCIS plans to keep Naval Station Norfolk safe when it opens to the public for Fleet Week

Local-area students disembark the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) after a tour at a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) event as part of Fleet Week Hampton Roads on Naval Station Norfolk, October 18, 2019.

MIKE DIMESTICO/U.S. NAVY

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: October 19, 2019

NORFOLK, Va., (Tribune News Service) — Naval Station Norfolk is a heavily-guarded base that serves as the heart of the Navy's Atlantic fleet.

But on Saturday, the world's largest naval installation opened to the public as part of Fleet Week. Visitors will be offered tours aboard an aircraft carrier and a guided-missile cruiser, and have the chance to see other demonstrations on the waterfront.

The event will allow anyone – ncluding foreign nationals – to come aboard the base and presents a variety of security challenges.

Officials with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service sat down with The Virginian-Pilot this week to talk about how they plan to keep the public and the Navy's most valuable assets safe.

Traffic Control

Only one of Naval Station Norfolk's gates will be open to public traffic. That's Gate 2 off Hampton Boulevard. Security officials will allow the public in from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. All other entry points to the base will require proper military identification.

Cliff Everton, the NCIS special agent in charge of the Norfolk field office, said base security would funnel everyone who enters Gate 2 to the event. He declined to provide the specific route but said nobody will be allowed to go off on their own private sightseeing tour of the base.

"It's a pretty controlled environment. Kind of one way in and then a guided way out," Everton said.

No Weapons

The Navy won't allow anyone, including those with concealed weapons permits, to bring firearms onto the base. It also won't allow other weapons such as knives, fireworks, explosives, clubs, pepper spray or other chemical sprays. No flammable liquids are allowed, either.

Visitors bags will be searched and guests will also enter through a magnetometer.

The same rules applied at the air show earlier this year at Naval Air Station Oceana, where multiple weapons were confiscated.

"Unfortunately, that was probably our biggest issue at Oceana," Supervisory Special Agent Steve DiGiantommaso said. "For these events, just do not bring them. There's enough personnel out there that if, God forbid something was to happen, that's what we're there to do. You come enjoy the show, see the sights, but let us do the security work."

Eyes Everywhere

There will be a heavy law enforcement presence at the event, including uniformed military security, Navy police and NCIS agents wearing branded polo shirts and easily identifiable jackets. The Navy wants a highly visible security presence so people will feel safe and know whom to approach if they see something wrong.

But NCIS will also have agents in plain clothes who are expected to blend in with the crowd.

"So if someone is doing something bad or doing something nefarious we can get close to them and observe them and either direct the base police and security forces if they're not already involved, or just ... follow them around and see what they're doing," said Supervisory Special Agent Tony Ruta.

The Norfolk field office is NCIS's largest in the world and a couple dozen agents are expected to work the event.

Those agents and other law enforcement will be in contact with a mobile command center that will be staffed by the FBI, NCIS, Navy police and Navy firefighters. That command post will also be in contact with Norfolk police and NCIS headquarters at Quantico, where there's a multiple threat alert center staffed 24-hours a day and monitors a variety of intelligence feeds and even social media posts.

Local NCIS agents say that center and its capabilities are what people typically think of when they see NCIS dramatized on television or in movies.

Evolving threats

NCIS is unique among law enforcement agencies because it is run by civilians and has the ability to enforce federal laws, military-specific laws and state laws.

At a public event like Saturday, that means they have to advise and guard against a wide spectrum of criminal activity, including foreign intelligence gathering, terrorist activities like the bombing of the Norfolk-based USS Cole in Yemen and cyber crimes.

Some of their tactics are simple. For instance, before the public is allowed on the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis or the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey, any computer screens the public might see will be cleared of sensitive material. Photographs will be allowed aboard the ships, but not of security personnel or procedures.

Other threats are more difficult to guard against in advance and have increased rapidly in recent years.

The possibility of a lone gunman is one of the things for which NCIS and other law enforcement ask for the public's help by identifying anyone who might be a threat.

Assistant Special Agent in Charge for National Security Mark Franco said a lone gunman could be someone fueled by a religious or political ideology, or any other number of reasons.

Sometimes, a shooting could be prevented by reaching out to help someone experiencing problems in advance, he said.

"We're seeing an increasing number of people that appear to be willing to be involved in mass killing as individuals, that when we take a look at it really don't seem to have any clear indication leading up to it," Franco. "Sure, there may have been difficulties or frustrations or problems in their life, but maybe no different than all of their neighbors and colleagues."

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