Bracing for Biological, Chemical, and Nuclear Terror
Bracing for Biological, Chemical, and Nuclear Terror
One of the chief lessons learned after September 11, 2001, was that the nation had entered an era in which it had to expect the unexpected. Prior to the terrorist attacks, most analysts never would have dreamed that passenger jets would be hijacked and used as missiles against domestic targets. Once the shock had subsided, however, it became clear to many government and private security experts that a number of unpalatable terrorist scenarios would need to be considered in order to defend against another unthinkable attack.
As they studied the possibilities, analysts and security experts became increasingly concerned about the possibility that terrorists might try to use biological, chemical, radiological, or even nuclear devices in attacks against the United States. While the use of conventional weapons, such as bombs and other explosive devices, remained among the most obvious concerns for the nation's doomsday theorists, they reasoned that a terrorist attack utilizing weapons of mass destruction was a distinct and growing possibility. First of all, with the exception of nuclear bombs, ingredients for such weapons are relatively inexpensive. Second, they are easy to disperse and deadly. Finally, analysts worried that the raw materials for such weapons were frighteningly easy for terrorists to obtain. After the September 11 attacks, officials spent considerable time and effort deciding how to respond to the growing potential of such a threat.
Biological weapons are relatively simple and potentially disastrous. They are made by concentrating large amounts of deadly germs or viruses. Among the most serious are the bacteria that cause anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox, and hemorrhagic fever viruses. The use of biological agents as weapons would prove particularly problematic because the germs are not visible to the naked eye and are difficult to detect without proper equipment. Large numbers of Americans could become infected with the germs before anyone realized that an attack had been made.
Because germs are naturally occurring organisms, they represent a cheap and easily accessible means for terrorists to inflict widespread casualties. In many cases, determined terrorists could harvest their own crop of deadly germs or simply find them in nature. Anthrax, for example, an infectious disease, occurs most frequently in wild and domesticated animals, such as cattle, sheep, and goats. Anthrax is common in agricultural regions in less-developed countries, the very sorts of areas where officials believe terrorist groups draw much of their support. Anthrax spores can be collected, ground into a
fine powder, and used as a weapon of mass destruction. Likewise, plague is a disease caused by a bacterium found in rodents and their fleas. Because it occurs naturally, terrorists could isolate a small amount of the bacterium, grow large quantities in laboratories, and use it to make deadly weapons.
Even if terrorist groups were incapable of developing their own bioweapons, government officials are concerned that terrorists could easily obtain them or the knowledge to build them. Most of these fears stem from a lack of information regarding the whereabouts of materials of the former Soviet Union's massive bioweapons program. When the Soviet empire collapsed, U.S. officials worried that bioweapons, materials to make them, and documents outlining how to make them were not secured. The officials' chief concern was that these items were obtained by terrorists or by governments sympathetic to terrorist groups. Once terrorists possess biological weapons, the weapons theoretically could be easily dispersed. For example, terrorists armed with a simple crop duster—a plane used to spray pesticides on crops—could spread vast amounts of germs into the atmosphere. In the 1960s, the U.S. Army and the Central Intelligence Agency conducted tests in the New York City subway system that dramatically illustrated the effectiveness of even primitive distribution of weaponized germs. Attempting to evaluate the consequences of a biological attack, testers dropped light-bulbs filled with microscopic particles into the subway system. They learned that the same attack using a deadly disease would have infected an estimated 3 million people. Analysts hypothesized that wind currents caused by moving subway cars could spread the germs through subway stations and ventilation systems to aboveground streets and infect scores of victims.
Such attacks would not be foolproof, however. The Japanese terrorist group, Aum Shinrikyo, in recent years released anthrax spores and botulinum toxins in Tokyo several times, but the attacks are not believed to have caused any casualties. Many bioweapons agents lose their potency when exposed to air, light, or moisture, and for this reason are actually quite difficult to turn into successful weapons.
However, even limited distribution can have serious health repercussions and cause widespread disruptions in daily lives. For example, four letters mailed in the United States in the fall of 2001 contained powdered anthrax spores, which infected twenty-three people, killed five, and made countless Americans fear the contents of their mailboxes. Contamination from those four letters closed down a U.S. Senate office building and several U.S. Postal Service installations. The incident made officials more aware than ever that terrorists could conceiveably use any means to deliver deadly germs to a broad spectrum of Americans.
Perhaps the most frightening prospect for security experts and government officials is the possibility that terrorists could create weapons using deadly contagious diseases, such as smallpox. Even if such weapons reached only a limited number of people, subsequent person-to-person contamination could be disastrous.
Although smallpox was officially declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1979, it is still among the most feared of contagious diseases because it is often lethal, always disfiguring, highly contagious, and there is no specific treatment or cure. Victims initially break out in a rash, then develop painful blisters that eventually scab and leave deep scars. Studies done in Europe before the disease was eradicated showed that a single smallpox victim had the potential to infect up to thirty people in an ever-widening ripple effect. However, infection rates would probably be much higher today because a generation of Americans has not been vaccinated against the disease. While most Americans are unfamiliar with the devastation the disease can cause, it historically has been one of the most feared of contagious illnesses. In 1947, a single case of smallpox in New York City led to the immunization of more than 6 million Americans, including then-president Harry S. Truman.
After smallpox was declared eradicated as a naturally occurring disease, the United States and the Soviet Union stored smallpox samples for research purposes. It is not known whether other nations saved samples, but there are concerns that, should terrorists gain access to the virus, they could easily wreak widespread havoc.
A new generation of Americans slowly began to understand the horror of a smallpox outbreak after a war game called Dark Winter was conducted by a variety of research centers. Dark Winter was a thirteen-day simulation based on the premise that terrorists had used smallpox to attack three states. The exercise clearly showed the tragic consequences of a terrorist attack using the smallpox virus. Within three weeks of the initial simulated attacks, the exercise projected that roughly three hundred thousand Americans would become infected and that one hundred thousand of those would die. By then the disease would have spread to twenty-five states and fifteen countries. In addition to death and panic, the simulation showed that Americans would have lost confidence in the government's ability to protect them. Moreover, such a crisis would have overwhelmed the nation's health care system and paralyzed the world's economy.
Preparing for the Worst
Doomsday scenarios like the one outlined by Dark Winter prompted the government to action. In December 2002, the Bush administration launched a plan to inoculate roughly 10 million health care, emergency, law enforcement, and military personnel against smallpox. The administration reasoned that people in those jobs would be frontline responders to a smallpox attack and would thus need protection from the disease. Under the administration's plan, the smallpox vaccine would be available to the general public beginning in 2004. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said in 2003 it had accumulated enough smallpox vaccine to vaccinate every person in the country, should the need arise.
In addition to its inoculation initiative, HHS also began working with state and local governments to form smallpox response teams charged with providing health care services to Americans in the event of a smallpox attack. Government officials also pondered steps to contain the spread of smallpox in the event of an outbreak. Among other things, the government considered the possibility of imposing quarantines on neighborhoods and cities affected by the disease. As part of its multipronged preparation for a possible bioweapons attack, the government has prepared millions of what it calls "push packs." The kits include antibiotics, antidotes, and other drugs for use in the event of a bioterrorist attack.
Even though analysts are divided on the likelihood of terrorists using bioweapons against the United States, the Bush administration decided it would be a mistake not to act. In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush proposed an increase of $6 billion for research and development of vaccines to combat an array of biological threats. The plan,
Project BioShield, was aimed at stimulating research and production of bioterrorism defenses, primarily vaccines. Dr. Gregory Poland, a vaccinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said the program was long overdue: "As the might of the U.S. increases and the poverty of other nations increases …what weapon do they have to strike back with? The only one they can afford and the only one we might not be protected against are biological weapons."9
The administration in January 2003 also created a system to detect the release of biological agents into the atmosphere. By adding sensors to air-quality stations already in place and administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the administration believed it might be possible to get early warnings if germs had been released into the environment. The EPA has approximately three thousand air-monitoring stations nationally. The units were put into place to ensure compliance with the Clean Air Act, and they provided a perfect platform for the new germ-detection units. Critics, however, warned that the detection units would not prevent an attack and that large numbers of Americans could be exposed to deadly germs before the sensors indicated a problem.
Biological weapons are feared in large measure because they occur naturally in nature and would be relatively easy for determined terrorists to gain access to. However, other
potential terrorist weapons are equally worrisome, including chemical, radiological, and nuclear weapons.
Like biological weapons, chemical weapons pose vexing problems for public health officials. Toxic chemicals are inexpensive, readily available, and easy to disperse. Like bioweapons, they can cause agony and death. The sheer number of potential chemicals terrorists could use as weapons is staggering. It ranges from concoctions such as sarin gas, which was developed for use as a weapon, to simple agricultural pesticides. Consequently, officials must envision a host of unsavory scenarios in order to prepare for possible chemical attacks.
Experts say that it would be extraordinarily difficult for terrorists, working in a home lab, to fabricate an effective chemical weapon. Nevertheless, the U.S. military uncovered evidence in Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network was developing crude chemical devices for possible use against the United States. Moreover, a number of countries identified by the U.S. government as sponsors of terrorism are known to have made such weapons. Officials fear that these governments might offer the weapons to terrorist groups to strike at the United States. Although they do not completely discount the possibility that terrorists will develop or otherwise obtain chemical weaponry, government experts consider such scenarios relatively remote.
Instead, they believe it would be far more likely for terrorists to turn America's financial and technological superiority against itself. For example, they hypothesize that terrorists could blow up a U.S. chemical plant, an explosion that would disperse deadly gases into the air. Likewise, terrorists could explode a truck containing hazardous material. Either attack could prove extremely deadly. As one measure of the chaos such an attack could trigger, experts point to a 1984 industrial accident in Bhopal, India. A Union
Carbide pesticide plant there accidentally released methyl isocyanate gas into the atmosphere. The disaster killed nearly four thousand people, about one thousand more than perished in the 2001 terrorist attacks. Perhaps even more chilling, a U.S. Army study estimated that nearly 2.5 million people could die if terrorists were successful in blowing up a chemical plant, sending clouds of deadly gases over an American city.
With protection in mind, the federal government provided the nation's 120 largest cities with millions of dollars to train and conduct exercises to prepare for chemical attacks. Current disaster plans call for police officers, firefighters, and paramedics to be the first to respond to a chemical calamity. They would be responsible for decontaminating victims and treating them with appropriate antidotes. These officials would also establish decontamination zones and treatment areas. Once victims had received initial care, they would be sent to hospitals for further treatment.
Some critics question whether such a response would be adequate in the face of a concerted terrorist attack. They especially worry that the nation's health care system could become
overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of victims. The availability of enough hospital beds to accommodate mass casualties is a primary concern. Analysts point to the 1995 terrorist attack in the Tokyo, Japan, subway system as a telling example. Roughly four thousand people who were not exposed to the sarin gas nevertheless rushed to hospitals. The crush of people overwhelmed Tokyo's hospital facilities, inhibiting doctors' ability to treat those who actually had been exposed to the deadly gas. These scenarios and others will have to be considered as officials make contingency plans for disaster.
Another potential concern for the nation's preparedness planners is the possibility that terrorists could use radiation as a weapon. Radiation, a form of energy emitted from the nuclei of atoms, is extremely harmful to humans. Although people are exposed to radiation every day from a variety of naturally occurring sources, large amounts of radiation can cause sickness and death. Symptoms of radiation sickness range from vomiting to internal hemorrhaging. Exposure to radiation also can increase the risk of certain types of cancer.
Government fears about the potential for terrorists to attempt a radiation attack on Americans only increased when officials in 2002 arrested an alleged al-Qaeda terrorist who they claim had plotted to build and detonate a so-called dirty bomb. Dirty bombs are conventional bombs that have been laced with radioactive material. Such a weapon could disperse radiation into the air. In turn, people would breathe it or absorb it through their skin.
In order to build a dirty bomb, however, terrorists would first have to obtain radioactive materials. Although the government has increased efforts to limit international trafficking in radioactive materials, officials conceded it would be impossible to completely eliminate clandestine sales of the materials. Fearful that terrorists might already have access to radioactive materials, the government installed radiation detectors at a number of locations throughout the nation. Such areas included airports, seaports, and highways. The sensors could help officials detect the presence of dirty bombs or the raw material used to build them.
As frightening as the prospect of a radiation attack can be, officials have been forced to confront an even scarier possibility: Terrorists could develop or obtain a nuclear weapon. Government officials believe it unlikely to happen. However, they recognize that the consequences of terrorists armed with a nuclear bomb are so hideous that it would be foolhardy to completely discount the possibility. Some experts believe a small group of as few as four scientists could build a rudimentary nuclear bomb, assuming they could obtain the necessary enriched uranium.
Analysts also believe it is possible for terrorist groups to steal or obtain small battlefield nuclear weapons. Even a relatively small, one-kiloton, nuclear bomb has the explosive power of a thousand tons of TNT. Doomsday theorists estimate that the explosion of such a bomb in midtown Manhattan could kill more than two hundred thousand people and injure another two hundred thousand. The blast would also obliterate structures within a wide radius and would produce enough radioactive fallout within three miles of the detonation to kill half of the people exposed to the radiation within a few weeks. Larger nuclear weapons, of course, would have an even more devastating impact.
While the use of nuclear weapons has been a threat for many years, their use would be particularly dangerous in the hands of terrorists. For example, terrorists would be more than likely to target a large urban area in order to inflict the most physical and psychological damage, and would not limit themselves to a military target. Moreover, terrorists more than likely would be willing to die in the process of setting off such a weapon, as many are religious fanatics driven by
the ideal of martyrdom. (Martyrs are those willing to die in defense of their beliefs.) Finally, terrorists are not tied to any particular state. Because they are far-flung, shadowy collections of individuals, it would be difficult for the government to seek reprisal.
The primary government response to the risk of a potential nuclear attack rests in attempting to make it less likely that such an attack ever occurs. The government has worked with Russia to secure existing nuclear weapons, along with supplies of plutonium and the enriched uranium necessary to construct a nuclear weapon. The government has also beefed up intelligence programs to monitor potential nuclear threats.
Responding to a Crisis
In the event of a nuclear attack, the government has in place plans to deal with the resulting crisis. Police, firefighters, and medical personnel would be charged with decontaminating victims and taking them to hospitals away from the blast zone. At the same time, the Energy Department's Nuclear Emergency Search Team and other federal agencies with specialists in nuclear decontamination would respond to the crisis. The challenges facing municipal and federal government officials would be daunting. In addition to sealing off radioactive areas, officials would need to provide food, water, and shelter for those displaced by the blast. They also would have to set up communication centers and medical facilities.
In the event that terrorists are unable to build a nuclear bomb, government officials worry that they might try to sabotage a nuclear power plant. The Bush administration therefore ordered increased security at the nation's nuclear facilities. Even a marginally successful attack against one facility could cause far-reaching health problems. Anyone near the plant would have to immediately begin taking potassium iodide to protect against thyroid cancer. Following the September 11 attacks, the government stockpiled 1.6 million doses of potassium iodide, though such numbers could be woefully inadequate if terrorists were successful in seriously damaging a nuclear plant.
Although it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which biological, chemical, radiological, or nuclear weapons are used against U.S. citizens, the 2001 terrorist attacks emphatically drove home the need for the United States to be vigilant and prepared for a variety of ghastly and previously unthinkable blows. Moreover, the government needed to consider such possibilities in order to improve its capabilities to prevent such calamities from ever occurring. Unless analysts gave thought to the different ways in which terrorists might be able to strike at and undermine society, officials would be unable to improve security. However, the country's sheer size and openness made preparing for the unthinkable a daunting task of enormous scope.