One day after the Jan. 15 hostage crisis at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, Jim Hartnett, director of community-wide security for the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, took a telephone call from Jeff Fortunato, assistant special agent in charge of Cleveland FBI.
Fortunato said he wanted to establish a stronger connection with the local Jewish community regarding security.
From that conversation, two months later on March 15, the FBI led a facilitated discussion, also known as a tabletop exercise, in which different people processes explain their roles and decision-making in responding to a crisis.
The plan was to invite security personnel from the Jewish Federation of Cleveland as well as their counterparts across northern Ohio from Akron, Canton, Toledo and Youngstown.
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The scenario played out was a hostage taking at a Cleveland Jewish institution.
Hartnett and Oren Baratz, senior vice president of external affairs at the Federation, took part in the exercise, alongside FBI personnel.
As a moderator read a series of events, different people responded with their plan of action given the changing scenario.
“FBI Cleveland invited all of their supervisors, all their specialty experts – by that I mean their SWAT team leader, their hostage negotiators, their media personnel, their public information officer, their intelligence coordinator,” Hartnett told the Cleveland Jewish News March 18. “So, they wanted to bring all the brain trust in and meet with us and learn from each other … in the event we have a critical incident. And (address) what we need to work on to get better in the future for a day we hope never comes.”
The tablet exercise will lead the Federation to make “minor adjustments” in its response plans, Baratz said.
“We were able to sit together and talk about each organization, what are going to be the various factors we will all need to consider and how we’re going to respond,” Baratz told the CJN March 18, adding among the aspects he found important were meeting members of the FBI, “understanding the thinking” and “creating a common language.”
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Eric B. Smith, special agent in charge of the Cleveland FBI, said the FBI has held about a half-dozen tabletop exercises with the Federation in the past several years.
“We don’t want this to be the first time that we’re having this conversation,” he told the CJN March 21, regarding being prepared for any potential incident targeting the Jewish community. “So, if something were to take place in a specific school, we don’t really want to guess as to where the school is and where we’re going. We want to have all those sorts of things down pat so we don’t have to think about that.”
In addition, he said, “We know what the answers say on paper. But until we’ve talked through it with folks that are the stakeholders in this thing, we want to make sure that our response plan fits with what their needs are and what their response plan is. … What we want to do through this exercise is really putting ourselves in position to be more prepared, and to put things in place to make it appear either physically or through the word of the mouth, that this is not a target that you want to undertake. ”
Smith said the FBI knows Jewish communities are targeted by threats from different sources.
“We think about the domestic terrorism side, we think about white supremacy or other hate crimes,” he said. “On the other side, you’re thinking about fundamentalists — those folks that would see the Jewish community as a target to furthering their ideological goals.”
It’s important for law enforcement to reach out and continue having strong relationships with Jewish communities for that reason, he said, adding, “This community is incredibly proactive.”
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Also participating was Daniel Riedl, chief of the national security and cyber unit of the US Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Ohio. His unit focuses on terror and cyber threats.
“Our office regularly partners with law enforcement, both federal and local, in these sorts of tablet exercises because the reality is in a critical event, we play a role in the outcome,” Riedl told the CJN March 21. “That can vary from Giving real-time advice about constitutional issues, giving real-time support about gaining information for law enforcement partners.”
Riedl said his office assists with things like getting information from electronic providers and assisting with charging decisions, should an incident take place where it’s necessary. Participating in these types of exercises helps to better assist, he said.
In addition, Riedl gave his commitment to the investigation and prevention of threats against the Jewish community.
“We are very cognizant of the past and persistent ongoing threats against the Jewish community,” he said. “We always stand ready to take whatever action is necessary to protect the community.”
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The exercise allowed observers from the Jewish communities of Akron, Canton, Toledo and Youngstown to both understand the role law enforcement plays and to make connections with their local FBI supervisory special agents in charge, who also attended the exercise and sat next to the attendees in their respective communities.
In fact, David Tullis, community assets, safety and security manager for the Jewish Federation for Greater Toledo, said he drove to Cleveland with Dave Banach, the Toledo supervisory special agent in charge, which allowed Tullis to strengthen his relationship with Banach.
The tabletop exercise helped him understand what information the FBI would need for a successful outcome in a hostage crisis, Tullis told the CJN March 21.
He said the Toledo Jewish community is still shaken by the Dec. 7, 2018, arrest of Damon M. Joseph, 24, who plotted to target two Greater Toledo synagogues in a mass shooting. He was arrested after receiving firearms from an undercover FBI agent.
Joseph, of Holland, pleaded guilty and was charged to 20 years in prison in September 2021 for attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and attempting to commit a hate crime. He is serving his sentence at Gilmer Federal Correctional Institution in Glenville, W.Va., and is eligible for release on April 22, 2036.
“And to this day, there’s still that uneasy feeling that somebody was there,” Tullis said. “This individual, this predator, this evil person was on this campus looking to do harm to people on (campus) just because of ideology.”
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Rob Elston, security director of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation, said it was helpful to see how collaboration and intelligence sharing can work between the FBI and the community.
“I don’t think I can directly correlate what took place here with the exercise,” Elston told the CJN March 21, referring to the social media targeting of the Youngstown JCC by James Reardon, who is serving a 41-month sentence in prison after tagging the Youngstown JCC in a violent post in 2019. “There was nobody on our property making the threat. It was more of a social media-type threat.”
Reardon, 23, was ruling to federal prison in September 2021, serving at Federal Correctional Institution Fort Dix in Burlington County, NJ
Elston said the exercise was valuable to observe.
“We learned how to work together more closely,” he said.
Bonnie Manello, CEO of the Canton Jewish Community Federation, attended as well.
“It was an eye-opening experience to see how all the departments of the FBI work in tandem with one another, each having a specific task and role, and how everything runs so cohesive during this high-pressure atmosphere because of their preparation and training ,” Manello wrote the CJN in a March 17 email. “It was an honor to be invited.”
Daniel Blain, CEO of the Jewish Community Board of Akron, also said the event was worthwhile.
“It was a very detailed and impressive process,” Blain told the CJN March 18. “What was clear was how much the FBI wanted to work collaboratively with the Jewish community, how seriously they take their role and the respect they have for our community and its culture.”
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Smith, of the Cleveland FBI, said he has been in touch with his counterpart in Cincinnati, William Rivers – who also covers Columbus – and that a similar tabletop exercise will be offered there for the central and southern Ohio Jewish communities.
He praised the ongoing close relationship the Cleveland FBI has with Hartnett, an FBI veteran, and the Federation.
“Jim is in my phone, right?” Smith said. “That’s what’s so great about it is that if Jim needed something, or if I needed something from him, I just call him. And that’s one of the most important pieces.”