Monday, December 11, 2006

A surprise attack on the United States by terrorists is the most worrying threat facing the country, while a nuclear detonation by al Qaeda here remains a low probability, the admiral in charge of the U.S. Northern Command says.

“We’re trying to think through the unknown unknowns,” Adm. Timothy J. Keating, the Northcom leader, said in a telephone interview with reporters.

Adm. Keating made the remarks in commenting on a nationwide, multiple-incident exercise that yesterday included a simulated nuclear terrorist attack that destroyed the Pentagon.

The exercise was designed to test continuity of government and emergency response after a one-kiloton nuclear blast was set off, and Adm. Keating said preliminary indications showed that despite the attack, government continued “unabated.”

Casualties from the simulated blast were in the “thousands” and a radioactive plume traveled south through Crystal City and Alexandria based on weather computer models.

Asked about government concerns that al Qaeda could strike the United States in the future with some type of nuclear device, Adm. Keating said on Friday it is something to think about but not a worry.

“On a scale of one to 10, this is around one or two for the likelihood of terrorists to a) get the material, b) assemble the weapon, c) learn how to operate it, d) transport it, and e) use it,” Adm. Keating said yesterday in a second telephone press conference with reporters from Northern Command headquarters in Colorado Springs.

“We still have no more reason today than we did last week to think that it is more likely but that does not stop us from being required to work through the ‘what ifs,’ ” he said.

Adm. Keating said the United States was not expecting the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon because the suicide airline hijackings were “not in our kit bag of threats.”

What worries U.S. military planners in charge of protecting the United States are unconventional weapons strikes or unexpected forms of attack.

“Things like biological attacks, things like maritime attacks by small boats in some numbers,” Adm. Keating said. “We’re working closely with intelligence agencies to try and red team all these.”

Adm. Keating said there is no intelligence indicating that terrorists may be planning an attack on the United States during the holiday season.

“I’m not aware of any operations in train,” he said, noting that discussions with the Homeland Security Department and FBI have shown no information warranted an increased concern of attack.

The joint military and civilian exercise began Dec. 4 and is testing responses to simultaneous events, in addition to the nuclear blast:

• Two long-range missile strikes from Asia on Hawaii and Washington state, one that failed and the second that was intercepted by a U.S. missile defense interceptor.

• A series of foreign suicide car-bomb attacks on a U.S. missile defense base at Fort Greely, Alaska, that were countered with a rapid deployment military force.

• The crash of a military transport carrying nuclear weapons at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.

• A series of threatening small-boat incursions that required searches and boardings at sea.

• Hijacked civilian aircraft that were used in terrorist attacks against Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Army Col. Hugh Bell, a Northcom missile defense officer, said the command is in charge of ordering the use of missile interceptors based in Alaska and California, if an enemy missile is launched.

“The situation is that there are folks who want to influence other countries and want to get their way and one of their methods is to threaten the use of ballistic missiles,” Col. Bell said.

Col. Bell said the dangers from missiles include a rogue nation such as North Korea or a terrorist group that manages to obtain missiles for use against the United States.

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