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National | Federal officials are trying to prepare state and local governments for future terrorist attacks, but-as one expert put it-counting the potential threats leads "somewhere into that space between despair and madness"

Issue: "War in the shadows," Oct. 6, 2001

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."

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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.


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