Hindsight may be 20/20, but foresight can be, too. Think-tank analyses of U.S. homeland security that would have seemed fantastic less than a month ago now seem prescient:
"America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland, and our military superiority will not protect us ..." reads a 1999 report on homeland security by the U.S. Commission on National Security: "Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers."
In February 2001, the Defense Science Board, a federal advisory committee, concluded that "the battlefields of the 21st century now include the United States homeland in addition to foreign soils, and encompass both military and civilian targets."
So far, the 21st century has yielded no homeland battlefields-only killing fields. Now the Bush administration has moved to try to ensure America's enemies shed no more blood on American soil, creating a new Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security, and installing Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as its head. But homeland security experts say Mr. Ridge's new job brings challenges the U.S. government has never before faced: assembling an extra-military civil-defense network that includes both government and private-sector organizations-and defending American turf from assailants who employ nearly undetectable weapons and hide in plain sight.
During the Cold War, the nature of foreign threats to the U.S. homeland was straightforward: Our military will beat up your military. Moscow knew Washington could incinerate key Soviet cities in the length of time required for a missile to burn up the miles between continents. The reverse was also true. Thus, the concept of "mutual assured destruction" kept the U.S. and Soviet militaries locked in a tense nuclear standoff.
Today, the threat against sovereign lands of the United States has little to do with military strikes and everything to do with "asymmetric attacks" launched by small, hate-driven sects-with and without the support of rogue states. America's mammoth size, status as the lone global superpower, and operation as a free and open society make the country vulnerable to such incursions: Think of it as the pride lion warding off attacks by the occasional but deadly tsetse fly.
Future attacks on U.S. soil will likely resemble the tsetse fly's pestilent bite, according to the Defense Science Board. Weaponized biological agents, such as anthrax, botulinum toxin, and aflatoxin are known to exist in Iraq, for example. Suitcase-sized nuclear weapons and infrastructure-jamming cyber-attacks also will be terrorist weapons of choice, according a report last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. In 1999, 22,000 attacks on unclassified military computer systems occurred, about three times as many as the year before. U.S. vulnerability to cyber-terrorism is magnified, CSIS says, "by the fact that 95 percent of all U.S. military traffic moves over civilian telecommunication and computer systems."
"If you start to count up the potential threats, you start to head somewhere into that space between despair and madness," said Donald Hamilton, deputy director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. "Granaries, power stations, stadiums, airliners, reservoirs. You realize you cannot protect all those things. Ultimately, as a nation, we cannot continue to guard every gathering or station that is vulnerable to terrorist acts."
Experts say America is particularly vulnerable to attacks with biological weapons. The idea, once merely grist for Hollywood thrillers like the Dustin Hoffman-Morgan Freeman vehicle Outbreak, now seems quite plausible: Earlier this year, between 12 and 15 men of Middle Eastern descent visited a Florida crop-dusting firm, according to an employee there, and asked questions about the planes' chemical capacity. The employee identified one of the men as suspected 9/11 terrorist Mohamed Atta, who was aboard one of the airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center. On Sept. 23, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all U.S. crop-dusters.
A government-funded task force on Defense Against Biological Warfare recently concluded that the release of about 200 pounds of bioagent on a large American city would kill 1 to 3 million people-about twice as much as a one-megaton nuclear explosion. To some extent, public health officials have acted to address the bio-terror threat. A Sept. 24 Wall Street Journal report chronicled the efforts of California state microbiologist Jane Wong, who fights bioterrorism from one of 81 labs linked for the purpose by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On Sept. 13, a speedboat breached a restricted area of Folsom Lake, about 100 miles east of San Francisco, which included a reservoir that supplies drinking water to Sacramento. By the time a sheriff's helicopter scrambled to pursue the encroaching vessel, it had vanished. But fear of follow-on terrorist attacks prompted law enforcement officers to ferry a sample of reservoir water to Ms. Wong for analysis.
Six days after the breach occurred, Ms. Wong ruled out the presence of anthrax, plague, brucella, and tularemia. Good to know Ms. Wong and a nationwide network of her colleagues are on the job, but the time required to rule out terrorism points up an alarming fact: During the same span, an actual bio-attack could have sent hot-and-cold running lethal microbes flowing through faucets in homes and businesses all through California's state capital.
That, says Colonel Randy Larsen, director in Virginia of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, shows the difficulty of managing the consequences of bio-terror: Properly equipped and funded, anyone with a large suitcase could infect a shopping mall with anthrax, plague or, as some bioterrorism experts believe, smallpox. But there aren't enough hospital beds or doctors in the country to deal with even a fraction of the potential fallout.
"There is no excess capacity in our civilian medical infrastructure," Mr. Larsen said, adding that about a third of private, for-profit American hospitals struggle to keep their doors open under normal circumstances. "A sudden influx of even a hundred seriously ill patients would overwhelm most facilities."
The results of a recent bio-attack drill in Denver may prove his point: Three major hospitals and numerous government agencies participated in an exercise scenario in which terrorists released plague-causing microbes in the Rocky Mountain city. "There were no people actually lining up at the emergency room," Mr. Larsen explained. "Just some participants manning small offices to simulate the communications that would take place." Even with two weeks notice and minimal staff commitment, one of the hospitals had to drop out of the exercise: "They couldn't even spare enough staff to run the communications simulation," Mr. Larsen said.
The Denver drill also exposed integration flaws in U.S. disaster preparedness, as did a similar exercise in Chicago, and a June 2001 senior-level war game called "Dark Winter," in which former U.S. senator Sam Nunn played the role of U.S. president, and former FBI head William Sessions reprised his old job. CSIS, the ANSER Institute, the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute, and the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies authored and monitored Dark Winter, which simulated a terrorist smallpox strike. Among the official conclusions: "Major fault lines exist between different levels of government, and between government and the private sector. These disconnects could ... compromise the ability to limit the loss of life, suffering, and economic damage."
Broken down, that means officials have not thought through critical logistical questions that demand resolution in advance of any fresh terrorist attack on American soil: How do you quarantine a large city? Does a city's mayor have the authority to quickly close a major airport? How do you get thousands of pounds of vaccine from the CDC to affected locales, then deliver the vaccines to millions of uninfected people without risking new exposure? What if a single mom is infected at work and her kids in day care aren't? Are existing police sufficient to prevent citizens from leaving a city until national guardsmen arrive? "We need to practice," Mr. Larsen said.
President Bush has signed up Tom Ridge as coach. The Bush administration is directing Mr. Ridge's office to devise a strategy to prevent terrorist attacks and coordinate efforts among federal, state, and local governments-the very places homeland security exercises have spotted the serious breakdowns in communication. But CSIS fellow Anthony Cordesman, who has held senior positions in the Defense and State departments during Republican administrations, fears the effort will degenerate into "an unholy mess. One of the reasons that people in jobs like his fail is that the person in them has to be able to control resources and make trade-offs. It is not clear Ridge will have the clout to do so."
But Anthony Blinken, a National Security Council staffer in the Clinton White House, said the atmosphere of national emergency may smooth Mr. Ridge's path: "In a time of crisis, people put common interests ahead of personal interests.... The question is, how long will that be sustained?"