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As the cloud of war descends over the world, San Diego may soon find itself at the center of the maelstrom. Three thousand miles distant from New York and Washington, D.C., 8000 miles removed from Southwest Asia and the Middle East, San Diego is second only to Norfolk, Virginia, as home to the Navy's biggest fleet concentration and intelligence establishment. They will surely play a crucial role in the world's yet-uncharted crusade against terrorism. Only the form and extent of battle that the city will face -- and whether it will escape harm in the new era of threat to the U.S. homeland proclaimed by the president -- is still unknown. San Diego has enjoyed a peaceful life as a military town ever since the war with Mexico in 1846, when Commodore Robert Stockton established a fort at the tip of Presidio Hill near Old Town. In 1852, President Millard Fillmore set aside 1400 acres on the southern tip of Point Loma for what became the Army's Fort Rosecrans; by 1916, in the midst of World War I, the city was home to four Army, Navy, and Marine bases. Yet, as the century progressed, San Diego endured only phantom threats to its own security. The closest call came at the end of World War II, when the desperate Japanese hatched a failed Kamikaze plan to shower the city with plague-ridden fleas. Even during the Cold War and Vietnam, with the ever-present danger of nuclear war, the city that bristled with nuclear cruisers, Triton submarines, and aerospace and electronics factories never perceived that it was at any greater risk of invasion or sabotage than, say, Topeka, Kansas.

This month's attacks in New York and Washington and the coming of war promise to alter that complacency. Revelations of the un-monitored comings and goings of alleged terrorists into and out of San Diego is just one unsettling factor. The presence of so many inviting targets, with so little apparent protection, is another.

In addition to the Third Fleet itself, the city is dotted with hundreds of high-tech military installations. Many of San Diego's civilian institutions, such as Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the University of California, as well as private contractors like Science Applications International and General Atomics, are closely tied to the Pentagon through consulting arrangements and shared employees. Affluent neighborhoods such as La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe, are home to a virtual brain trust of the nation's top defense scientists, administrators, and entrepreneurs.

Until last week, little public heed was given to warnings from these consultants themselves that terrorists might strike in the nation's midst. Even as the Defense Department spent millions of dollars here investigating the threat of biological, nuclear, and cyber terror, few, if any, precautions were taken to protect either the researchers, their work places, or the city itself.

Some ascribe the lack of action to the carelessness of the post-Cold War era. Others point to the scattered nature of the research itself, most of which is contracted out by varying branches of the Pentagon, many seemingly unaware of what the others are up to. Though many of those associated with the city's defense think tanks repeatedly warned of a national catastrophe in the works, the message somehow never got through. And, since much of the anti-terrorism work that is conducted at local research institutions is top secret, ordinary citizens have no way of knowing about the potential hazards they face.

Many of the nation's top terrorism experts not directly employed by the government work for La Jolla's Science Applications International Corp., whose structure and activities are said to closely mirror the government's clandestine intelligence operations. Founded in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam war by nuclear physicist J. Robert Beyster, a veteran of Los Alamos National Lab and La Jolla's General Atomics, SAIC has become one of the government's largest national security contractors. Now 77, Beyster is still chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the company, which is technically employee owned but largely controlled by Beyster and a board of directors laden with retired military men and Central Intelligence Agency veterans.

Ownership of the company's stock is limited to employees, who may not sell it to outsiders. Instead they must tender their shares back to the company upon their departure from SAIC. Sources suggest that the unusual arrangement guarantees that the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and ultimately the Pentagon and White House control the company's destiny. Smaller defense contractors complain that they often lose out to SAIC in competitive bidding for government work because the huge firm, boasting more than $6 billion in annual revenue, has an inside track on the business.

In addition to its shadowy ties to the United States defense establishment, SAIC is also closely linked to the government of Saudi Arabia. According to the SAIC website, an entity called Saudi SAI, is an "SAIC equity partner," which "installs and maintains computer systems, telecommunications systems, and other data analysis systems for customers in Saudi Arabia. Through the history of the company, the major emphasis has been on the Royal Saudi Naval Forces C3 project; in the past four years, SSAI has emerged as a leader in the commercial sector as well."

SAIC employees are frequent donors to the campaigns of influential members of the U.S. House and Senate. Since 1988, the value of SAIC stock -- determined not by the stock market but by the company's 18-member board of directors -- has soared from under $5 to more than $30 a share. Beyster owns a 1.3 percent stake in the firm, which is worth millions.

Board members include ex-admiral Bobby Inman, a former deputy CIA director and one-time director of the National Security Agency. In 1984, he authored what became known as the Inman Report, the earliest government initiative calling into question the nation's readiness to deal with terrorist attacks. After the September 11 attacks, he told the Austin American Statesman, "This is war. We're going to have to rethink what is the trade-off for privacy in return for internal security."

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