- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 29, 2000

For those not already deeply depressed by the legal free-for-all that is the presidential election 2000, here's something even more serious to worry about the possibility of a biological weapons attack on the United States. Weapons of mass destruction have been outlawed by the international community over the past 50 years in numerous treaties, yet in a more unpredictable world these weapons may be a threat more than ever. There is little doubt, for instance, that Saddam Hussein has by now replenished his stocks of biological and chemical weapons in the absence of U.N. inspections over almost two years. Such weapons are also known as "the poor man's nuclear bomb," for good reason.
Yesterday and today, experts in what has been called "the dark side of biology" are gathering for the second National Symposium on Bioterrorism organized by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies. A biological weapons attack is probably far from the consciousness of most Americans, which indeed is the problem. This country is woefully unprepared for an attack which would be devastating.
Just how likely is it that the United States will sustain an attack with biological weapons? In one sense, as pointed out at the symposium yesterday, the quest for a clear threat assessment is essentially a fools errand. No attack has ever been registered in the United States, and accordingly there is no way to assign degrees of probability There is no pattern on which to base a judgment.
Yet, the consequences are terrifying. Japan was not prepared in 1995, when the chemical nerve agent Sarin was released in the Tokyo subway in a horrendous terrorist act by members of a doomsday cult, an event that left 5,000 people sick and killed 12. In the Tokyo subway, members of the cult simply set plastic bags with Sarin in the corners of the station, opened the bags and let the air currents do the rest of the work. No one had any idea this was coming.
The United States clearly does need to be prepared for the possibility. Given the levels of American engagement in trouble spots abroad from the Balkans to the Middle East, Americans make inviting targets. Following the end of the Cold War, international terrorism, often funded by the Soviet Union, has waned, but new sources of threats continue to arise. A new paper released this week by the Cato Institute, "Are We Prepared for Terrorism Using Weapons of Mass Destruction?", states that the United States is the target of about 15 terrorist incidents each year, mostly by exploded and unexploded bombs. Since 1982, 42 Americans have died and 115 been injured on average every year due to acts of terrorism.
Thus far American exposure to weapons of mass destruction, which include radiological, chemical and biological weapons, have been on foreign soil. American soldiers in the trenches in World War I come to mind and possibly U.S. troops in Operation Desert Storm (a much debated cause of Gulf War syndrome). Sooner or later, however, chances are that an enemy or terrorist group will succeed in striking here at home.
In 1996, Congress passed the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici act on preparedness against domestic terrorism using weapons of mass destruction, and $10 billion is currently being spent every year on training of law enforcement, medical and fire departments. Yet, writes Eric R. Taylor in the Cato report, even "under the current program, personnel in more than 50 percent of the major U.S. population centers will remain untrained and unprepared for any future nuclear, biological, and chemical attack."
The state of our defenses was the subject in May of the first ever exercise in the management of attacks with weapons of mass destruction. The city of Denver was selected for a simulated plague attack, the plague being one of the primary biological threats, along with anthrax and smallpox. The results were hardly encouraging. A putative release of aerosol plague bacilli at the Denver Arts Center resulted after just three days in an estimated 3,700 cases of the pneumonic plague and 950 deaths, completely chaotic and overwhelmed medical treatment facilities and orders for the state borders of Colorado to be sealed off. One can only imagine the kind of nationwide panic an attack would set off in real life.
Says Tara O'Toole, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, "This is a very complex kettle of fish." It is not enough for federal agencies to get involved, like the federal Emergency Management Agency, the entire health care system must be activated to deal with such a threat. "Health and Human Services has been slow in getting involved," she says.
What we could be confronting is a faceless enemy that could strike at any time and to which there will be no easy military response. It is imperative to start preparing for a strike while there is still time.
E-mail: helle.bering@washtimes.com.

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