Metro Atlanta court building identified as easy target for terrorists

CBS TV station says despite 2008 report showing weaknesses, little had been done to improve security


DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. -- A highly sensitive report obtained by CBS Atlanta News identifies how easy it would be for a terrorist to attack the DeKalb County RecorderÂ’s Court with chemicals or explosives. Or for an irate inmate, like Fulton County Courthouse shooter Brian Nichols, to take the lives of judges, deputies, and civilian employees.

Only CBS Atlanta News has gained access to the restricted security survey, which exposes those disturbing safety lapses. The review was conducted at the request of Sheriff Thomas Brown in 2008. CBS Atlanta asked the sheriff why little has been done two years later.

"I am assuming you asked someone in authority for the report to be released and they were willing to give you the report. Is that correct?" the sheriff asked investigative reporter Wendy Saltzman.

"Your office [did]," Saltzman said.

"My office?" the sheriff replied.. "OK. Would that be you?" he asked his staff.

The sensitive record was not supposed to be disseminated without the approval of the U.S. Marshals Service, and probably never should have been turned over to CBS Atlanta News. The report details how easy it would be for a terrorist group to disperse chemical and biological agents in the courthouse or to drive a vehicle loaded with explosives into the building.

"I will be the first one to tell you no building is 100 percent safe-- even the DeKalb County Courthouse, which is a very safe building," Brown said.

CBS Atlanta is not publishing many of the report's details in the interest of safety. But Chief Judge Nelly Withers showed Saltzman exclusively the areas she warns pose the most significant risk to her and county staff.

"There is very little security for the judges here," Withers said.

The report outlines the ease with which the judges can be targeted, including a lack of secure parking or locks on courtroom doors to prevent unauthorized access into the judges' secure hallway.

"This is incredibly unsafe. Completely and totally unsafe. It should be blocked off," Withers said of the courtroom access doors.

But Withers' main concern is a holding cell where inmates awaiting justice are held just inches away from civilian staff.

"If there is a man in there, and a woman gets booked in, she's sitting right here," said, pointing to a general office area.

Five years after Brian Nichols took a deputy's gun and went on a killing spree at the Fulton County Courthouse, Withers says there is the threat of a similar situation here.

"[An inmate] could very easily disarm someone. And they would have a gun in the secure area, access to judges and all sorts of court employees," she said.

All these dangers are outlined in the security survey completed by the U.S. Marshals Office in 2008.

"Why hasn't anything been done since then?" Saltzman asked Withers.

"Well, I really can't answer that," she said.

"It is just a matter of money," the sheriff said.

Brown insists the courthouse is extremely safe.

"I think it is safe, and I think it is safe because we screen the public coming in," Brown said.

Saltzman asked him about the holding cell and defendantsÂ’ access to courthouse staff.

"Aren't we just setting them up for a Brian Nichols-type situation there?" Saltzman asked.

"No, not at all. You overexaggerate that one," he said. "There are no weapons in the courtroom, because we screen every person that goes in there."

"In Brian Nichols' case it wasn't a weapon that he had," Saltzman responded.

"You are correct," Brown said.

The sheriff said he's asked for more money, but has been denied the resources to make major changes. Yet he refutes the courthouse is less secure than any other county building.

CBS Atlanta recognizes the sheriff doesn't have a limitless budget, and that he has to balance all of the county's safety needs with his limited resources.

Within hours of the interview with Saltzman the sheriff sent his staff into the courthouse. They've now secured those courtroom doors, and will no longer be using that holding cell.

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