The war at home?

There's not much the U.S.can do to prevent an Iraqui terror attack, besides watch and listen.

Published December 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

As U.S. jets and missiles pounded Iraq with 300 more cruise missiles for a third straight night, top FBI counterterrorism officials were attending a Christmas party at CIA headquarters up the Potomac River from Washington.

So much for the terrorism threat.

Business as usual? Actually, no one in security was taking anything for granted, said a CIA spokesman, Tom Crispell.

"Quite the opposite ... I certainly wouldn't characterize things as business as normal." The Counterterrorism Center, based at the CIA, was humming at top speed, officials said, with extra shifts monitoring reports flowing in from operatives around the world -- in the Palestinian refugee camps, in Jihad training grounds in the Lebanese mountains, in the cells of anti-U.S. terrorists in the Sudan.

But in many cases, the best tactic the United States has is to walk softly and carry a big mike -- a wiretap on Iraqi and other hostile embassies, here and abroad, like the one on the Iraqi mission to the United Nations during Desert Shield in 1991 that led to an FBI sting and the arrest of a would-be terrorist.

The eavesdropping satellites and electronic ears of the National Security Agency, which can lock on key words flowing through the microwaves -- such as "bomb" or "blow up" -- are at work as well, plucking conversations out of the air. The reports that get the fastest attention, of course, are stamped "IOH" -- Imminence of Hostilities.

As glasses clinked and Christmas carols were sung at the CIA Friday night, U.S. counterterrorism teams were on bow-string alert all over the world, from Camp Lejeune, N.C., home of the U.S. Marines' Chemical-Biological Incident Response Force, to Quantico, Va., where the FBI's Hazardous Materials Response Unit is based. In Washington, extra security was laid on at water and power plants, the Metro system and the Pentagon.

It's not likely they'll be able to stop a determined terrorist, however. A confidential study for the secretary of defense, reported in Salon two years ago, laid out a scenario wherein secret Iraqi agents in the United States floated clouds of mustard gas over key East Coast military bases, infected Navy crews on Diego Garcia with cholera and paralyzed the Pentagon with anthrax. Two years later, one of its authors, Amoretta Hoeber, a deputy secretary of the Army in the Reagan administration, said little had been done to plug the holes in U.S. security since the report was issued.

"The universal perception [about the report] has been, 'It's a really important thing that you're pointing out -- and I hope someone else takes care of it,'" she said gloomily. U.S. officials appear to be counting on the deterrent effect of a threat to "obliterate" Baghdad if Saddam unleashed chemical or biological warfare here.

Anti-terrorism forces had been on heightened alert for the past several months, as it turns out, especially in Washington, ever since the U.S. bombings of Sudan and the camps of suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

"In the immediate aftermath of the East Africa bombings, security was heightened in the U.S., particularly in Washington, because of fears there would be a domestic retaliation," said Susan Lloyd, spokeswoman for the FBI's field office in Washington. "That's been woven into the Iraqi situation ... So there's no additional heightened state of security now, as far as the FBI is concerned."

At the Pentagon, patrols were upped and military police have been issued automatic weapons. At federal buildings all over the city, guards were giving closer scrutiny to overcoats and packages. Extra foot patrols and squad cars were deployed around the White House and Capitol building.

Standing by also are multi-agency teams that spring into action at the first inkling of a terrorist attack. The Domestic Emergency Search Teams -- DEST -- are led by the FBI and scattered around the United States. FEST, their foreign-based counterparts, coordinated by the State Department, are on alert at U.S. embassies around the world. The teams include intelligence, explosive and chem-bio specialists and sharpshooting tough guys, the "ninjas." Military special operations units had also canceled leaves at bases here and abroad.

Those teams, put in place after the Africa bombings, are on alert all the time. "We're constantly in touch with CIA, DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency], NSA and so forth, on a daily basis," said a senior FBI official, on condition of anonymity. "So it's not a case of round up the usual suspects [during the current situation]," he said. "It's a constant effort; it's ongoing all the time."

"When it comes to something like this," he added, "if there were an incident, they'd go into action automatically."

The World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings don't inspire confidence that terrorist plots can be aborted, especially when few individuals are involved.

"We love conspiracies," said a regional boss of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency, which investigates bombings. "Especially big conspiracies. If there were always big conspiracies, we could stop every bombing." The problem is terrorists' operating independently in smaller groups now, which makes the FBI's success in rolling up the alleged conspirators in the Africa bombings all the more impressive. Still, the arrest of those suspects came after the fact; the FBI or CIA couldn't prevent the attacks.

This week, Washington decided an ounce of caution was the best medicine: 38 U.S. embassies in Africa were closed to protect employees against possible terrorist reprisals for the American airstrikes on Iraq. At the American embassy in Ivory Coast, a spokeswoman said, "We haven't received any specific threat, but it is better to be on guard and take precautions instead of having regrets later."

In Washington, however, government employees still had to go to work, Often in and around potential targets with high symbolic value, like the White House, Capitol building and Supreme Court. The FBI, CIA, D.C. police and Pentagon could only hope for the best, listening to wiretaps, staying in close touch with their agents, opening packages and frisking visitors at the entrances to government buildings.

The threat over the next decade may come by missile," former Sen. Sam Nunn warned last year, "but it is more likely to arrive by suitcase."

By 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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