Newsreal: We are not ready

"We're not going to have a desert storm here. We're going to have a chemical or biological Oklahoma City."

By Jeff Stein

Published December 10, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

At about 11 in the morning, Kate Moran felt dizzy. She collapsed during her art class on Manhattan's Upper East Side and was soon writhing on the floor. Her nose flowed with mucus, her eyes rolled back in her head, her back arched and locked, her spine cracked and she began swallowing her tongue and chewing off her lips. It all happened in minutes, and then she was dead.

A few days later, Kate's teacher would be dead, too, followed soon after by a homeless man with no apparent connection to either of them. The emergency rooms began filling with people complaining of inexplicable, grotesque maladies like the one that struck down Kate.

It's the opening chapter of "The Cobra Event," a new thriller by Richard Preston, author of "The Hot Zone." And while Preston's fictional prowess has met with mixed reviews, the scenario he paints, of an Iraqi-backed biological attack on New York, is highly realistic, experts say.

Worse, not only does Iraq possess such destructive weaponry, but the United States has little idea how to deal with such an attack on its cities. This despite three years of intense study, millions of dollars spent and numerous urban war games, spurred by the nerve gas attack in a Tokyo subway by a Japanese cult, killing 12 and making more than 5,500 others ill.

"It is clear we are not prepared," wrote Marine Corps Capt. Chris Seiple, a WMD (weapons of mass destruction) expert, in a recent issue of Parameters, the U.S. Army's theoretical journal. "There is still a great deal we don't know about how we should respond in such a crisis." The National Defense Panel, a body chartered by Congress, earlier this month urged the U.S. military to focus more on the possibility of hit-and-run biological attacks and to begin training the National Guard to respond to them.

Forensic scientists, from places like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will be critically important in the analysis and response to such an emergency. Yet war games run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in cooperation with the Defense Department, the FBI, local police and other paramilitary agencies never practice the most likely bioterrorism scenario -- disparate people inexplicably falling ill. Instead, they practice hunting down a terrorist who has not yet exploded his germ-bomb.

"Basically they practice the same one over and over again, with some kind of a device, an explosive device, that may or may not have chemical or biological agents associated with it," groused an exasperated federal agent who is also a scientist. "That, I think, is the least likely thing. Basically, what's going to happen is that a small device, if it exists, is going to go off and people are going to get sick, and that's what you're going to deal with."

Or not even "go off." Perfume atomizers and liquid drop dispensers will work just fine, spreading deadly ailments as easily as the common cold. In fact, the most likely early manifestations of such an attack will be whimpers rather than a bang, with people falling dreadfully ill from hemorrhagic fever, camel pox or anthrax, all of which can be easily manufactured and released into a crowded subway station from a "bomb" as small as a jewel box.

The chances of busting up a terrorist biological plot in advance are not good, say experts, in light of what happened in 1995 when the Aum Shin Rikyo cult released sarin gas in Tokyo.

"That was a 10,000-person cult," said the federal agent, who insisted on anonymity. "If the combined intelligence of this country missed a whole cult, what makes us think we're going to find a small device somewhere? I mean, it's ridiculous. What's going to happen is, even if a device such as is postulated in these exercises actually exists, the first time we're going to come upon it is after it's gone off somewhere and, you know, it's done its thing."

A military expert snorted at current civilian emergency planning, which has FEMA directing the U.S. government's response to the death, panic and spreading casualties associated with a germ attack. "Everybody knows they couldn't lead troops across the street for a free beer," he said.

Following the Tokyo attack, Marine Corps Gen. (now Commandant) Charles Krulak formed the Army's first integrated response unit to chemical and biological terrorism. Since then the Pentagon has adopted Krulak's approach, but its insistence on traditional battlefield models for training, plus laws limiting the military's role in domestic law enforcement, are major drawbacks, critics say.

"The Army says, 'We have 40 years of experience with this,' but they don't," says one of the Marine experts. "They've never done something like this. We're not going to have a Desert Storm here. We're going to have a chemical or biological Oklahoma City. For that, we've got to change course, and leadership."

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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