- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

Sometimes there's an uneasy connection between the thrilling imagination and the dangerous possibility.A few days ago, I listened to a radio interview with an Iranian-born novelist whose plots explore the world of terrorist cells and terrorist operations. All too frequently, his imaginative projections (conceived to entertain) have borne an exacting resemblance to subsequent terrorist crime and real-world tragedy.
U.S. military and intelligence agencies engage in the similar kind of role-playing and imaginative speculation. They call it "thinking Red." In war games, the United States and its allies are usually designated "the Blue team." The opposition the bad guys wear red. Thus "thinking Red" means getting into the mind of the enemy in order to act like the enemy.
These war games and exercises are fictions with a specific purpose, not predictions, but a means for analytically identifying:
Potential "enemy courses of action" (what an opponent might do with a given set of material and human resources in a given situation or "scenario").
Possible weaknesses in Blue (U.S.) strategy, offensive or defensive military preparations, deployment of spies and intelligence assets, etc.
Potential Blue responses to correct these weaknesses.
The "wargaming" and "Red think" add to other types of risk analysis conducted by defense agencies.
Of course, reality metes out astonishing and terrible surprises. No one quite foresaw September 11, with hijacked civilian airliners turned into "strategic kamikazes" directed at symbols of American economic and political power. However, one Hollywood movie had terrorists hijacking a Goodyear blimp to deliver a nuclear strike on the Super Bowl. A dozen years ago, I participated in a war-gaming project with an interesting wrinkle, a "nuclear Cessna." The plane was rigged with a tiny nuke and flown by a suicide pilot. Two decades ago, a young German flew a similar small plane into the Soviet Union, evaded detection and landed in Red Square. The war-game "think" behind the suicide Cessna wasn't outlandish.
"The German Conquest of England in 1875, and Battle of Dorking," written by Sir George Tomkyns Chesney in 1871, was for the British a terrifying "future fiction." Chesney wrote the short pamphlet right after France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. In Chesney's odd tale, the Prussians slipped by the Royal Navy and demolished an inept British Army. Chesney's "made-up little story" led to several genuine British military reforms.
If a thriller novelist or war-gamer thinks of a particular terrorist operation, I fear there's a decent chance (unfortunately) that a dedicated terrorist has already tried or is attempting to execute it. U.S. defense analysts have always mined fiction, Hollywood and military literature for provocative capers. The next step in the process is to then try to assess how U.S. intelligence and defense plans might handle such a threat.
Of course, "real world" intelligence on impending terror operations is the first line of defense. Afghanistan has been an intelligence trove on al Qaeda activities and methods, from training procedures, to communications capabilities, to financial support. Several reports indicate terror attacks in Malaysia and Pakistan have been thwarted by the intelligence harvest.
Current, accurate intelligence is absolutely essential information but putting it to good use requires imagination, and putting it to best use requires political commitment.
Certainly, leaders can't support every farfetched theory and fear. Circumstances, however, do change. For years, defense officials have wrestled with the possibility of terror strikes on "critical civilian infrastructure" in the United States. Commercial nuclear power reactors are clearly terror targets, particularly those near airports. In a study issued this week, Rep. Ed Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, pointed out that several other countries have placed anti-aircraft defenses around similarly sited reactors. I know for a fact U.S. military analysts considered this option decades ago. No, deploying Stinger anti-aircraft missile teams around reactors doesn't guarantee their defense. It does make a potential terrorist "course of action" more difficult.
Power transmission facilities are also vulnerable. One civil defense official said truck bombs detonated on major bridges was another dangerous possibility. These are considered "targets of psychological influence," like the World Trade Center.
And plotting their destruction in war games is one step toward ensuring their protection.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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