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Thinking beyond the unthinkable

At a time when the unthinkable became reality, the U.S. government is examining the possibility that an attack of an ever greater scale might be launched — possibly using biological or chemical weapons. By Robert Windrem and Michael Moran.
/ Source: NBC News

At a time when the unthinkable became reality, the U.S. government is examining the possibility that an attack of an ever greater scale might be launched against America - possibly using biological or chemical weapons. U.S. officials insist no evidence exists to suggest that such an attack is inevitable. However, for years a handful of intelligence officials and military and civil defense experts have been warning that America is titanically unprepared for even relatively unsophisticated attacks involving biological agents.

NBC NEWS HAS obtained an unclassified copy of a 1998 CIA publication called “The Biological and Chemical Warfare Threat,” a compendium of information, warnings and possible scenarios for the kinds of attacks that a determined group might devise.

The report, one of dozens in recent years stressing the need to increase disaster preparedness, research and pre-emptive intelligence-gathering, focuses on the difficulty in actually detecting the use of some of these weapons before it is too late.

In general, the CIA reports, “one advantage of biological weapons over chemical or nuclear weapons is that there are no reliable BW detection devices currently available nor are there any recognizable signals to the human senses. The delay in onset of symptoms could make it difficult to identify the time and place of attack. Moreover, a biological warfare attack might be readily attributable to a natural outbreak.”

Despite those alarming findings, experts and politicians are quick to stem any rising panic. In a recent interview with “Dateline NBC,” Dr. Jonathan Tucker of the Monterey Institute admitted Americans are “probably at greater risk on the highway than of being infected with anthrax” and pointed out that terrorists who somehow commandeered a crop-duster would need to acquire “one metric ton” of a chemical like sarin just to poison a two-square-mile area. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. — who chaired a Foreign Relations Committee hearing on biological weapons just six days before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — tells “Dateline NBC” that a simple $6 paper mask can stop 98 percent of airborne pathogens from entering the human body.


Biological weapons and their close kin, chemical weapons, are products of the tremendous arms race of the Cold War as the United States, the Soviet Union and other states raced to create weapons so terrible that their very existence in one’s own arsenal and the arsenal of one’s enemy would mean no one dared use them. Indeed, with few exceptions, none of the most sophisticated chemical or biological agents in the U.S. or Soviet arsenal has ever been used. In the past century, European powers experimented with mustard gas in World War I and so frightened each other that their use was banned by international convention after the war. Japan used chemical agents and some biological weapons on parts of China in World War II, and Iraq employed them against its rebellious Kurdish population in the late 1980s. By and large, however, the difficulty involved in controlling these weapons and the stigma attached to them kept them on the shelf. At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia agreed to a gradual destruction of all such arms, and both were supposed to stop all research and production.

But the increasing sophistication of international terrorist movements led some to fear that ridding the world of such weapons would not be that easy. U.S. officials say they are aware of no instances where any state has provided biological or chemical weapons technology to a terrorist group. But at least one group, the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinryko, managed to create and use the chemical agent sarin in its 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway system. Ten people died and more than 5,000 were injured in that attack. Japanese police later noted that the cult had experimented unsuccessfully with even more deadly biological weapons — including anthrax and botulinum — before turning to sarin. Tucker says Aum Shinryko’s use of sarin likely diminished the deadliness of the attack, as the agent requires skilled chemistry to create in large quantities and can easily kill an untrained terrorist in the lab.

Besides the United States and Russia, the list of nations currently regarded as “Bio-Chem” capable is fairly small: China, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Taiwan, Egypt, Syria, North Korea, India, Pakistan and possibly Libya, Cuba and South Korea. Of that group, six are on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. A 1994 congressional report concluded that 100 nations could develop biological weapons using their civilian biotech industries and noted that the Biological Weapons Convention banning such weapons, while more comprehensive than treaties banning chemical or nuclear weapons, has the fewest and weakest enforcement measures. The United States recently refused to take part in negotiations to strengthen it.


Biological warfare essentially depends on a perversion of nature; in effect, a scientific manipulation of existing viruses, diseases or other organisms to make them more virulent, less detectable and far stronger than anything nature itself unleashes. A sophisticated attack using such an agent — the kind of attack imagined by U.S. and Soviet strategic warfare units — involved loading the agents into artillery shells, bombs or even missiles. The CIA has 39 organisms on its “core list of organisms having potential BW applications,” along with 10 toxins. There are 14 animal viruses - things like cholera, plague and anthrax — and one animal pathogen on its list of “animal pathogens with potential BW application.” On its “warning list” of other organisms that could be used for BW, the CIA lists eight viruses, five bacteria and four toxins. Most are rare and difficult to deal with, let alone use as weapons.

WARNING SIGNS The Aum Shinryko attack in 1995 on Tokyo’s subway system is viewed as a warning by many who study biological and chemical weapons. Since then, the FBI and other agencies have raised their awareness of any moves that could suggest a plot to do something similar in the United States.

About three months after that attack, President Bill Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive #39, ordering federal agencies to prepare a plan for dealing with biological or chemical terrorist incidents in the United States. The order laid out priorities for countering terrorism both in the United States and overseas. Each administration since the first Reagan administration has issued an order dealing with the possibility of terrorist attacks, but Clinton was the first to make biological and chemical weapons terrorism a specific priority.

A working group composed of representatives from at least seven federal agencies meets regularly at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which is the lead agency for consequence management. The FBI is designated the lead agency for crisis management, including investigation. The Army is designated lead agency for training local “first responders.” The agencies involved are the CIA; the State Department; the Justice Department, including the FBI; the Department of Health and Human Services, including the U.S. Public Health Service and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the Defense Department, including the Army and Navy Special Operations Forces and various chemical and biological response units at places like Fort Dietrick, the Aberdeen Proving Ground and Edgewood Arsenal, all in Maryland; the Department of Energy, including the national weapons laboratories and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Over the past seven years, the FBI has quietly arrested and prosecuted six right-wing activists for obtaining such agents. Four of them were members of a right-wing group in Minnesota called the Patriots’ Council. Another was a member of the Aryan Nation in Ohio, and a sixth man was a survivalist from Arkansas. All were arrested under the Biological Weapons Terrorism Act. The Minnesota men as well as the Arkansas activist were charged with possession of ricin, a deadly toxin, while the man from Ohio was charged with mail fraud in obtaining bubonic plague, which he had ordered from a Rockville, Md., laboratory. All but the Arkansas activist have been jailed, with the four Minnesota men being convicted and the Ohio man pleading guilty.

In recent days, following the New York and Washington, D.C. attacks, the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control have stepped up their surveillance, asking local authorities to be alert to threats to water supplies and to clusters of patients arriving at hospitals with similar, unusual symptoms. And the Federal Aviation Administration has grounded the nation’s crop-duster airplanes amid concerns that hijackers may have planned to use them for chemical or biological attacks.