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Planning for the Unthinkable
Experts Study the Worst: Terrorists with Biological Weapons
By Joseph B. Verrengia The Associated Press
Sept. 17 As devastating as Tuesday's terrorist attacks were, national security and public health experts know this much: Something even worse could happen. There are weapons that are invisible and next-to-impossible to trace. A whiff of nerve gas. A droplet of anthrax. A particle of smallpox.
Infectious or toxic weapons in skilled hands could cause considerably more casualties among ordinary Americans than the estimated 5,000 dead and missing at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The use of biological or chemical weapons described by some as the poor man's atomic bomb is a sensitive topic, especially now.
No Real Threat Yet
Experts caution that a bioterrorism attack in the United States is not inevitable. Their opinions are the products of war games rather than an immediate and real threat.
And there are those who say that few terrorists could pull this off, that this would be a much more complicated and difficult feat than it may seem.
But the science exists to launch such an attack and, obviously, so does the hatred. President Clinton said as much as early as 1999 when he said a biological or chemical attack on the United States is "highly likely."
Seattle thought so, too. Before the World Trade Organization meeting there, hospitals stockpiled antidotes, just in case.
A commander of Afghanistan's Taliban told The Associated Press last year that Osama bin Laden described by administration officials as the prime suspect in Tuesday's attacks was training his fighters in the use of chemical weapons. The New York Times reported Sunday that satellite photos show dead animals at a terrorist training camp in eastern Afghanistan operated by bin Laden.
The Scope of an Attack
Chemical weapons might have an extraordinary effect, wiping out masses of people, all at once. But the deadly effects likely would not spread beyond the people who came in direct contact with the nerve gas or other poisonous agent.
In contrast, the scope of an attack using certain biological weapons in an airport or a domed stadium would not be apparent for days or weeks until victims showed symptoms of a mysterious illness.
By then, they could have infected many others around the world. Waves of patients might overwhelm hospitals.
The public, panicked, might turn on their neighbors unless adequate medicines and vaccines were available.
Which, the experts warn, they are not.
"The biological threat is one we are not adequately prepared for," said Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington think tank. Hamburg was New York City health commissioner during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
"This is a critical moment to assess where we are vulnerable," she said. "The biological threat has to be very, very high on the priority list."
Others share Hamburg's concern.
"I'm very, very alarmed," said Donald A. Henderson, a biodefense expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and adviser to former President Bush.
Skeptics said Tuesday's events, while horrific, don't mean that a bioattack is on the horizon. Most terrorists, they said, don't have the expertise.
"We need to be realistic in our threat assessments," said Jonathan B. Tucker, a nonproliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington. "A worst-case scenario is unlikely."
Recent Uses of Biowarfare
Fighting with disease was prohibited by a 1972 treaty signed by 143 nations, but biological weapons have, on occasion, been used in the past. In the Middle Ages, sieges were broken by catapulting corpses over castle walls to spread poxes and plagues. In the western United States, American Indians were given the blankets of smallpox victims.
During the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was accused of using chemical weapons against Iraq's Kurdish minority. He was believed to have possessed biological and chemical weapons, and the CIA says he is pursuing them again.
The United States and the former Soviet Union built vast germ warfare stockpiles. In July, the Bush administration pulled out of negotiations to further enforce the biological weapons ban.
Subsequent reports suggest both nations still investigate new bioweapons, including an enhanced form of anthrax, to understand how they might work. Experts speculate that hardships might prompt some Russian scientists to sell their know-how on the black market. In addition to Iraq, Iran and Libya have reportedly pursued germ warfare.
In Japan, a cult killed a dozen commuters on a Tokyo subway with nerve gas in 1995 after failing to spread biological agents with a sprayer truck.
Simulated Attacks, Real Deficiencies
With today's microcomponents, some believe a modified fire extinguisher or climate control system loaded with bioagents could do the job.
In the past 18 months, such simple scenarios have been featured in simulations with names like "Dark Winter," "Operation Top-Off" and "RED Ex." The exercises, hosted by think tanks, involved many high-level officials and analysts.
(Ironically, New York City was planning a mass vaccination drill on Sept. 12. The World Trade Center attack pre-empted it.)
Former Sen. Sam Nunn recently portrayed the president in the "Dark Winter" simulation of a smallpox attack. On Sept. 5, Nunn summarized it for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
The 3,000 "cases" in Oklahoma from the initial "attack" mushroomed into hundreds of thousands of victims nationwide within 12 days, along with riots and a trade collapse.
"It's a lucky thing this was just a test," Nunn said. "But our lack of preparation is a real emergency."
Dangerous Strains Are Difficult to 'Weaponize'
Authorities identify six microbes that could be turned into fearsome weapons:
Smallpox tops the chilling list. Tens of millions of infectious virus particles can fit into an aerosol can.
A close second is anthrax, a spore-forming bacterium often carried by livestock that is especially virulent if inhaled.
Also worrisome are bubonic plague, ebola, botulism and tularemia.
They can be unstable and difficult to "weaponize," although the biotech revolution in medicine may change that.
"Genetic modification of organisms can make them resistant to antibiotics and more difficult to detect," said Dr. Eric Noji of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "Of all the great things to come from the sequencing of the human genome, the downside is its potential for evil use."
Tucker and other security experts aren't convinced.
Seed cultures of infectious agents are uncommon and hard to grow, they said. Smallpox was eradicated in 1979; only samples remain under top security in the United States and in Russia. And, they are hard to disperse reliably.
As a wet slurry, biomaterials tend to clump and clog sprayers.
As a dry powder, the process is even more difficult and dangerous, they said.
Money, Medicine and Other Fixes
Still, authorities recommend some steps.
First, money. Hamburg suggests using some of Congress' $40 billion war chest toward addressing bioterror.
And medicine. Nunn says there are only 12 million doses of smallpox vaccines in the nation now. CDC has contracted for 40 million more still only enough for one in seven Americans, and they won't be ready for several years.
Illness reports could be better shared to detect infection clusters.
But most doctors haven't seen a real epidemic, or treated the illnesses on the bioterror list.
In a Minnesota test, former state epidemiologist Michael Osterholm reported an emergency specialist failed to diagnose anthrax. Radiologists missed it on lung X-rays.
In a matter of days, Osterholm warned, it would be "the closest thing to a living hell we've probably ever known."
The first symptoms? Like the flu.
In that test, the world we know didn't end with a bang, but a sniffle.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 21, 2001
Hey Martin, appreciate the article - here's my thoughts.
The author is a yo yo. He didn't think it through. The terrorists only killed 5000 people which is less than comes over the border from Mexico everyday. The intent of the terrorism was to topple our economy - That it accomplished quiet nicely. End of story.
The possibility of the unthinkable is just that. We don't need to fret about biological or chemical warfare. The author is absurd if he doesn't think that the power behind the movement doesn't want to survive. They want to hurt us but it would be no good if they weren't around to enjoy our pain. If they used chemical or biological weapons then we would end up nuking them. We wouldn't be pussyfooting around like we are and the only reason we are doing it this way is BECAUSE it was only 5000 people.
-- Guy Daley (email@example.com), September 21, 2001.
What you say could be true. I post these so that at least people know that there is that possibility. If I had posted an article about flying commercial airlines into tall buildings before the 11 of September I doubt that it anyone would of noticed. I believe that 6000+ dead is way to much to pay for lack of preparedness on our part. As for the nukes, who we going to nuke?
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 21, 2001.
You need to read this article - the terrorists *were* planning on using BIO weapons!:
TIME Exclusive: Cropduster Manual Discovered in Suspected Terrorist Hideout
Sources tell TIME that U.S. officials suspect that bin Laden conspirators may have been planning to disperse biological or chemical agents from cropdusting planes BY MASSIMO CALABRESI AND SALLY DONNELLY
Saturday, Sep. 22, 2001
New York -- U.S. law enforcement officials have found a manual on the operation of cropdusting equipment while searching suspected terrorist hideouts, government sources tell TIME magazine in an issue out on Monday, Sept. 24th.
The discovery has added to concerns among government counterterrorism experts that the bin Laden conspirators may have been planning or may still be planning to disperse biological or chemical agents from a cropdusting plane normally used for agricultural purposes.
Among the belongings of suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, sources tell TIME, were manuals showing how to operate cropdusting equipment that could be used to spray fast-killing toxins into the air.
The discovery resulted in the grounding of all cropdusters nationwide on Sunday Sept. 16th. The dusters have been allowed back up, but are not allowed to take off or land from what traffic controllers refer to as Class B airspace, or the skies around major cities.
One senior official cautions that because corroborative evidence is lacking the FBI does not place "high credibility" in the notion that the hijackers were in fact exploring the idea of stealing or renting cropdusters. However, the FBI is advising members of a crop-dusters' group to report any suspicious buys of dangerous chemicals in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks.
Last week, the National Agricultural Aviation Association, a crop dusters trade group, posted a message from the FBI to its membership: "Members should be vigilant to any suspicious activity relative to the use, training in or acquisition of dangerous chemicals or airborne application of same including threats, unusual purchases, suspicious behavior by employees or customers, and unusual contacts with the public. Members should report any suspicious circumstances or information to local FBI offices."
Fair use, for educational purposes.
-- Deb Mc. (email@example.com), September 22, 2001.