- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 13, 2003

With a war apparently shaping up against Iraq, and threats by Muslim countries to respond with terrorism, the question arises: Can a country such as the United States protect itself against major attacks? Or is a sophisticated, technologically advanced, open democracy just not defensible? Can technology help for example, more monitors everywhere, or the Pentagon's proposed surveillance of personal information?
I've recently talked to people who worry professionally about terrorism. Both asked not to be named but, since their ideas stand or fall on their own, it doesn't matter who they are. They argue as follows:
An attack such as September 11 requires planning, coordination, training and communication. Surveillance, whatever the social and constitutional implications, might well prevent them.
To the extent that terrorists can work alone or in small groups without need for communication other than face-to-face, without advanced modalities common in the United States, they will be hard to stop.
If terrorists know that, say, cell phone conversations are being monitored, they simply won't use cell phones. And they don't need nation-state backing to create mayhem. Therefore, there will be no "easy" targets for reprisal.
Can isolated terrorists act without getting caught by current surveillance? It would seem so. A spin on the Internet to probe the possibilities is discouraging but instructive.
For example, search for "sarin," a classic nerve agent, and you find the chemistry for making it, complete with warnings about hazards to the maker at each step.
A friend of mine, an organic chemist, says making quantities suitable for terrorism would be "tricky for an amateur, who might not survive the experiment, but definitely possible for a decent chemist."
How do you stop this? With tighter surveillance? You might require manufacturers of chemicals to report the purchase of precursor compounds for nerve agents, he said, but a good chemist simply would make the precursors from even simpler compounds. Tracking the purchase of laboratory apparatus would be difficult.
For that matter, a lone terrorist with a boat would have no problem importing poisons made elsewhere. Cops who watch the borders will tell you it is impossible to keep anything out of the United States.
While writing about the police, I once looked at radar screens showing sea and air traffic around southern Florida. There were literally hundreds of boats and aircraft. People in the Drug Enforcement Administration have guesstimated to me that they intercepted maybe 5 percent of drugs coming in.
If the Colombian cartels can bring in cocaine, terrorists could bring in just about anything.
A modern nation has countless vulnerabilities. A danger mentioned by people in counterterrorism, as well as on Internet sites, is that of trains.
Rail cars laden with all manner of deadly substances propane or chlorine, for example regularly travel through densely populated regions.
Derailing a train does not require use of the Internet or purchase of suspicious equipment. Estimates of probable damage vary, but are all high.
Economic terrorism gets less mention in the press than the September 11 variety, but those in the field worry greatly about it.
The British journal New Scientist has on its site a page dedicated to bioterrorism and one on bovine spongiform encepholopathy, or mad cow disease.
This is an expensive affliction of cattle, requiring that infected animals be killed. Foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks are costly and also require that animals be killed. Provided you have the organism, infecting livestock does not require much organization or communication that can be intercepted.
Making the problem worse is that an attack doesn't have to kill many people to be effective. Even a small amount of radioactive material released in a city would cause panic.
A release of sarin that kills 20 persons would be less deadly than a bad bus crash, but the psychological effects would be far greater.
It is hard to see how technology can stop attacks of these sorts. The real technological advantage appears to be on the side of the attackers.
It seems to me, for what that's worth, that the effort needed to prevent a particular variety of terrorism is so great in proportion to the effort required by the terrorist that, except for feed lots and remote railroad track, it would be phenomenally expensive.
I don't have a better idea. Whether more attacks occur remains to be seen, but, sez me, they assuredly can.

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