The Phantom Menace

Could terrorists attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction? Highly unlikely, say defense experts. So why is the Clinton administration spending billions to foil a most improbable threat?

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Under the green steel trestles of the U.S. Route 1 bridge over the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, scores of victims lie bloody and blistered, writhing in pain. Moments earlier, a van packed with explosives laced with toxic mustard gas had detonated at the staging area for a 5K race, dousing runners with the chemical and sending shrapnel ripping through the crowd. The local hospital is quickly overwhelmed, and the wounded and dying fill an ever widening ring of area emergency rooms. Police, fire, and disaster-relief personnel from cities and towns in three states — joined by officials from 27 federal agencies — rush in to deal with the crisis.

Within hours, authorities have established a command center at a nearby National Guard facility, filled with computers and electronic equipment airlifted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation from its base at Quantico, Virginia. Workers in bright blue plastic suits and helmets speed victims of the chemical attack through showers, then roll them into an assembly-line decontamination unit set up by the Weapons of Mass Destruction section of the National Medical Response Team. At the blast scene, investigators scan the site with sophisticated detection devices that can collect and analyze minute traces of toxic materials.

The devastation seems quite real — thanks to the work of scriptwriters at Research Planning, Inc. The consulting firm was contracted by the federal government to simulate a terrorist attack in Portsmouth on May 20, along with mock bombings in Denver and Washington, D.C. Known as TOPOFF, the event was the largest of hundreds of similar exercises conducted since the mid-1990s at a cost of $3.5 million — part of a vast and growing national mobilization against terrorism. Since 1996, federal spending on counterterrorism has nearly doubled to $11 billion a year. The fastest-growing share of that spending — up 140 percent in just four years — is aimed at countering the kind of scenario acted out in Portsmouth: terrorist use of chemical weapons, nuclear devices, and biological warfare agents known collectively as weapons of mass destruction. The anti-terrorism campaign has been led by President Clinton and Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, who warn that terrorists might unleash a doomsday weapon that could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.

The problem is, the threat of such an attack appears to be no more real than the mock terror in Portsmouth. According to data collected by the State Department and the FBI, terrorism worldwide (in all its forms, including old-fashioned bombs, guns, and airplane hijackings) has plummeted since the end of the Cold War — and in the United States, it is virtually nonexistent. U.S. intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials have yet to document a single serious threat to the United States involving terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction. And many arms control officials and scientists say the chances of such an attack are close to zero — because such weapons are so difficult to create and deploy.

Like the farcical fallout-shelter drills that marked the height of Cold War hysteria in the 1950s, the antiterrorism mobilization may have more to do with fueling fears than safeguarding citizens. The effort is wasting enormous sums of federal dollars — without any serious evidence that such programs are actually needed. “The United States holds little credible intelligence indicating that international or domestic terrorists are planning to attack United States interests domestically through the use of weapons of mass destruction,” FBI Director Louis Freeh testified before Congress last year. In May, investigators with the General Accounting Office concluded that the government is preparing for terrorist disasters without regard to the likelihood that they might occur.”Federal efforts to combat terrorism,” the GAO found, “have been based on worst-case scenarios which are out of balance with the threat.”

Those “worst-case scenarios” have provided the military and defense agencies with a much-needed rationale to sustain high levels of spending in the wake of the Cold War. With so much money being spread around, virtually every agency of the U.S. government is fast developing an antiterrorism program to cash in. And in an ominous move, the Clinton administration has given the Pentagon and the FBI sweeping new powers that threaten to erode civil liberties. Counterterrorism laws have allowed the FBI to expand surveillance of American dissidents and U.S. backers of Third World guerrilla groups, while U.S. armed forces have set up special commands that enable uniformed soldiers to erect domestic roadblocks, make arrests, and engage in house-to-house searches in response to an alleged terrorist act or threat.

In effect, the Clinton administration has used what it concedes is an unlikely threat of a terrorist attack to create an unprecedented partnership involving the military, intelligence agencies, and domestic law enforcement. “What you have is all of the agencies using the terrorism issue to augment their existing authority,” says Jim Dempsey, senior staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a think tank focusing on civil liberties. “They’ve all learned to sing the terrorism song.”

For the national security establishment, adrift with few enemies since the end of the Cold War a decade ago, the terrorist threat seems made to order. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the military, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the FBI’s national security division have been battling to justify sustaining and even increasing their high levels of spending. Terrorists were a well-known threat to American embassies and other targets abroad, and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center by Islamic fundamentalists brought the danger home. Now the generals and spymasters had a new enemy — and new ways to bolster their declining budgets.

Since then, federal officials have fanned the fear of terrorist attacks on American soil. President Clinton warns that terrorism is the No. 1 danger to national security, eclipsing threats from an unstable Russia, a resurgent China, and poverty-fueled conflicts in the Third World. “I predict to you,” Clinton declared in his State of the Union address last January, “the major security threat this country will face will come from narco-traffickers and the terrorists and the organized criminals … working together, with increasing access to ever more sophisticated chemical and biological weapons.”

Clinton and his defense secretary both seem to believe that a terrorist disaster of catastrophic proportions is not a matter of if, but when. “There is not a moment to lose,” Cohen says, conjuring up images of “a plague more monstrous than anything we have experienced.” Appearing on ABC’s “This Week” in November 1997, Cohen plopped a five-pound bag of sugar on the table and claimed that an equivalent amount of anthrax could kill 300,000 people. Five months later, a team of four experts demonstrated in the Archives of Internal Medicine that it would take more than 100 pounds of anthrax to kill far fewer people.

Doomsday scenarios in the media have been equally sensational. Jessica Stern, a former staffer at the National Security Council, begins her book The Ultimate Terrorists by asking: “What if terrorists exploded a homemade nuclear bomb at the Empire State Building in New York City?” In graphic detail, she describes the devastation that would follow, leaving up to 200,000 people dead. Richard Falkenrath, a terrorism expert at Harvard University and co-author of America’s Achilles’ Heel, warns that “deadly chemical warfare agents can quite literally be manufactured in a kitchen or basement.” Similar warnings have been issued in prestigious journals like Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy.

Suitcase bombs and anthrax-laced water supplies have become staple fare in Hollywood screenplays and best-selling fiction. A bioterrorist took center stage in Mission: Impossible 2, and fictional descriptions of chemical attacks on New York City in Richard Preston’s The Cobra Event helped galvanize President Clinton into demanding action on terrorism. In an interview with the New York Times last year, Clinton called the novel “pretty credible to me,” adding that he considered a terrorist attack using chemical or biological weapons “a near certainty” in the next few years.

With such a steady diet of horror stories, it’s no wonder the public has come to regard the threat of terrorism as very real. In a 1998 poll conducted for the Henry L. Stimson Center, a national security think tank, more than three-quarters of those questioned said they consider a nuclear attack by terrorists “likely.” Among potential nuclear threats to the United States, terrorist groups were ranked as the greatest danger, ahead of China, Iraq, Iran, and Russia. “People have transferred their fear of communism to fear of terrorism,” says John Parachini, executive director of the Washington office of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, a research organization specializing in arms control.

Yet the government’s own data suggest that the fear is out of proportion to the threat. According to the State Department’s “Patterns of Global Terrorism,” terrorism is actually on the decline. In the 1980s, the administration recorded a yearly average of 562 terrorist attacks worldwide. In the 1990s, the annual figure dropped by a third to 382.

Although terrorism is a deadly reality in places like Israel, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland, incidents of terrorism in the United States have been few and far between. According to the FBI, the nation has experienced fewer than four terrorist incidents each year since 1992. Most were comparatively low-budget affairs — small-scale arson, letter and pipe bombs, forceful occupations of buildings. Only two incidents led to mass casualties, and those — the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center and the 1995 explosion at the federal building in Oklahoma City — involved old-fashioned explosives, not weapons of mass destruction. All but a few of the attacks were perpetrated by domestic, not foreign, terrorists. “In the six years since the World Trade Center bombing,” FBI Director Freeh acknowledged before Congress last year, “no significant act of foreign-directed terrorism has occurred on American soil.”

Indeed, some critics charge that cases of foreign terrorists striking within the United States are so rare that the FBI has been slow to publish its annual report, Terrorism in the United States. In June, the bureau finally released the 1998 edition, blaming the delay on troubles in compiling data. But some suggest that the FBI knows the figures undercut its case for increased antiterrorist funding. “I think they’d be embarrassed about how little there is,” says Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

According to a recent study by the Monterey Institute for International Studies in California, only one American has died this century from a terrorist attack using nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. In 1973, a school superintendent in Oakland was killed by a cyanide-laced bullet — fired not by a shadowy foreigner, but by a member of the California-based Symbionese Liberation Army.

The main reason terrorists haven’t used weapons of mass destruction is simple: Such devices, which involve complex and dangerous technologies, are not easy to acquire or use.

Many proponents of the antiterrorist mobilization make it seem as if would-be bombers could simply cobble together apocalyptic weapons using supplies found at the neighborhood hardware store. D.A. Henderson, head of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies at Johns Hopkins University, insists that well-connected criminals could construct an anthrax weapon for less than $1 million by hiring former Soviet scientists and buying Russian equipment. “There is some reasonable certainty that we will have a significant bioterrorism event within the next 10 years,” Henderson says. “It’s just a matter of time.”

But even most terrorism hawks — including experts in the U.S. intelligence community and defense contractors like the RAND Corporation — acknowledge that assembling and using weapons of mass destruction is a daunting project. Last year, a blue-ribbon “Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction” issued its report to Congress and the president. The study maintains that nuclear, biological, or chemical terrorism “presents a genuine threat to the United States.” But, it goes on, carrying out such attacks requires capabilities that virtually no terrorist group possesses, including “highly knowledgeable personnel, significant financial resources, fairly sophisticated production facilities and equipment, quality control and testing, and special handling.”

Even if terrorists could acquire strains of botulism, anthrax, or plague, turning such materials into a lethal device for mass casualties is a highly complex undertaking. “It’s simply not easy to do,” explains Milton Leitenberg, a biological warfare expert at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. Leitenberg points to the technical hurdles involved in the event that sparked much of the alarm about terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons — the 1995 nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. Subsequent investigations revealed that the group possessed significant quantities of chemicals, as well as ample funding to procure whatever equipment was necessary to produce biological weapons. Professional scientists in the cult spent four years attempting to produce two agents — anthrax and botulinum toxin — considered relatively easy to work with. Yet the group failed to produce any biological agent, and were reduced to poking bags with umbrellas to disseminate the sarin gas they were able to make. Such difficulties explain why the government has not documented a single threat from terrorists wielding toxic agents. “There is no U.S. government evidence that any group has produced or obtained biological weapons,” Leitenberg says.

Nuclear weapons are even harder for terrorists to obtain or deploy. In the April issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Karl-Heinz Kamp of Germany’s conservative Konrad Adenauer Foundation notes that Iraq spent 20 years and billions of dollars seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability — but failed to build even a single bomb. “Not a single instance has occurred in which a nongovernmental group or individual has come anywhere close to obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Kamp observes. It would be virtually impossible, he adds, for terrorists to steal or purchase a ready-made bomb from the Russian military — let alone transport and detonate such a weapon.

Just because a disastrous attack by foreign terrorists is extremely unlikely, of course, does not mean it is impossible. In national security parlance, such assaults are known as “low-probability, high-consequence” events. Government planners say they must prepare for the worst, no matter how far-fetched it may be. “At the present time, the threat is low,” says Robert Burnham, chief of domestic terrorism counterintelligence planning for the FBI. “But the results could be catastrophic.”

David Stockwell, a spokesman for the National Security Council, says the administration is following a philosophy of better safe than sorry. “You have to plan for what an enemy is likely to do, but also for what is the worst thing he can do,” he says. “I think the administration would prefer that 10 years from now someone says, ‘Well, they did too much.'”

There is no question that some of the government’s counterterrorism efforts make perfect sense — like upgrading U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world to withstand attacks like those that devastated embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But those bricks-and-mortar projects make up a small fraction of the antiterrorism bonanza. Since 1996, counterterrorism spending has totaled $38.5 billion — and is projected to include another $11 billion next year. The money has gone into the coffers of dozens of U.S. agencies, along with their suppliers, contractors, and consultants.

The campaign began in earnest with three edicts from President Clinton and two key laws — the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, both passed in 1996. The measures gave new responsibilities to the Defense Department, established the FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as lead agencies for responding to terrorism, created an office of “terrorism czar” at the National Security Council, and provided millions in new funding. The military, law enforcement units, and a wide range of federal agencies — from the U.S. Customs Service and the Coast Guard to the Army and the Energy Department — all expanded their operations. Exercises like TOPOFF flourished: There were 32 such drills in 1996, 53 in 1997, and 116 in 1998.

No agency has benefited as much as the FBI. Under the Clinton administration, the bureau’s antiterrorism budget has soared from $78 million to $609 million, while the number of agents devoted to counterterrorism has jumped from 550 to nearly 1,400. Twenty percent of the FBI’s budget now goes to fight terrorism, up from just four percent in 1993. The money has paid for a Counterterrorism Center that works closely with its CIA equivalent, five Rapid Deployment Teams featuring airlift capability, a federal clearinghouse for information on government response to terrorism, and a brand-new counterterrorism division at FBI headquarters.

Other federal agencies have carved off smaller but significant slices of the antiterrorism pie. This year alone, seven separate agencies — FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Defense, Justice, Energy, Veterans Affairs, and Health and Human Services — are spending $611 million to train and equip local and state police, fire departments, and emergency medical teams. In all, budgets for such “domestic preparedness” programs have skyrocketed from $42.6 million in 1997 to $1.3 billion this year.

So chaotic has been the growth of federal antiterrorism efforts that the GAO has produced a steady stream of reports citing overlap, inefficiency, and poor management. In the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to cite just one example, the GAO found that millions of dollars had been spent stockpiling vaccines that “do not match intelligence agencies’ judgments on the more likely chemical and biological agents a terrorist group or individual might use.” In short, HHS spent millions on the wrong stuff.

Even more troubling, the GAO reports, the antiterrorism drive is “taking place in the absence of sound threat and risk assessment.” Without a reasoned evaluation of the likelihood of large-scale terrorist attacks, there is simply no way to know whether the bilions in federal funding are actually needed. “What is important,” the GAO notes, “is the very critical distinction between what is conceivable or possible and what is likely.”

The antiterrorism drive has done far more than funnel money into federal agencies: It has also quietly expanded the government’s powers to spy on political organizations. Key provisions of the Antiterrorism Act of 1996, which civil liberties groups call “one of the worst assaults on the Constitution in decades,” made it a felony to raise money for organizations deemed “terrorist” and repealed laws preventing the FBI from investigating organizations simply because of their political activities.

The law requires the State Department — backed by FBI intelligence — to compile a list of “designated foreign terrorist organizations.” Groups can be included solely for organizing demonstrations that turn disruptive, and none of the evidence need be made public. Any American citizen found giving money to groups on the list can be targeted for investigations. The 1999 roster included 30 organizations ranging from nationalist groups like Basque separatists and the Kurdistan Workers Party to Islamic guerrillas like Hamas and Hezbollah. Two opposition groups in Sri Lanka and Iran have been fighting their designation in court, to no avail.

“My criticism of the FBI’s program is that they are monitoring groups at the political-intelligence level without ever focusing on violent conduct,” says Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “It leads you down the path of collecting information on a wide range of political organizations, movements, and causes.”

That’s exactly what the FBI did in its COINTELPRO program during the 1970s and in its operation against Americans who supported the rebels in El Salvador during the 1980s. Had the provisions of the Antiterrorism Act been in place then, the FBI could have investigated and arrested U.S. backers of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, which would have met the criteria to be deemed “terrorist.”

Individuals don’t have to commit criminal acts to attract FBI scrutiny — it’s enough just to contribute money to an organization on the list, even if the funds are intended for humanitarian or social service programs. The anti-fundraising provision was enacted at the request of the Justice Department, which claimed that great sums of money were being transferred from U.S. citizens to terrorist groups. Yet no one has been prosecuted under the measure since it went into effect in 1996.

“It seems to have turned out to be more of a tool for pretextual investigation and infiltration of groups,” says Gregory Nojeim, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union. “The investigations are conducted secretly, so you don’t know what’s going on.”

In its quest to root out suspected terrorist sympathizers, the FBI is increasingly enlisting state and local police. The bureau has established 27 “Joint Terrorism Task Forces” in cities across the country, and 10 more are currently being developed. According to FBI Director Freeh, the task forces “combine the international investigative resources of the FBI with street-level expertise of local law enforcement agencies.”

In March, the Justice Department sent out a “Tool Kit” application form to all 50 states, inviting them to apply for money from its multimillion-dollar pool of terrorism-readiness funds. An FBI-prepared section of the kit suggests that states have each city and county fill out a “Jurisdiction Threat Worksheet” assessing their vulnerability to terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction. Local police are asked to identify up to 15 groups or individuals dubbed “Potential Threat Elements,” or PTEs, ranking how dangerous each one is according to a numeric scale. The kit helpfully points out that terrorist motivations could be “political, religious, racial, environmental, [and] special interest.”

The worksheets are to be sent to the state antiterrorist coordinator, who reviews them with an FBI special agent. But the Tool Kit is careful to add: “As this information will be of a sensitive nature … no specific identity of the PTEs evaluated in the assessment process will be included in the information forwarded to the designated state agency.” Each local law enforcement agency, however, is free to maintain files on the targeted organizations.

The FBI insists that its terrorism probes don’t violate anyone’s civil liberties. “Anytime we open an investigation, we have very strict guidelines,” says Burnham, the bureau’s counterterrorism director. “Well, I shouldn’t say strict. We have guidelines, which I believe are adequate for us to meet our investigative responsibilities while protecting people’s rights.” Burnham acknowledges that in cases where international terrorism is suspected — including those involving organizations on the State Department list — the FBI’s much looser guidelines for foreign intelligence apply.

Along with expanding the FBI’s authority, the antiterrorism campaign has also broadened the Pentagon’s role in domestic law enforcement. The U.S. military has been prohibited from doing police work since the Posse Comitatus law was enacted following the Civil War. But in 1996, Congress created a loophole in Posse Comitatus specifically authorizing the Defense Department to help the FBI during an emergency involving weapons of mass destruction.

The National Commission on Terrorism, created to advise Congress, has proposed going even further. In June, the commission suggested that the Pentagon, not the FBI and FEMA, should lead the war on terrorism. The infrastructure for a military response is already in place. The Joint Chiefs of Staff has created a “homeland defense” unit, called the Joint Task Force for Civil Support, headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia. Commanded by a general, the task force can call on virtually any unit of the U.S. armed forces and the National Guard to make arrests and conduct search-and-seizure missions. The ACLU warns that the military could invoke this authority even in cases of suspected terrorism — meaning that an American city could find itself policed by uniformed soldiers simply because the FBI believes someone is planning an attack. “The front lines are no longer overseas,” says H. Allen Holmes, former assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. “They are also right here at home.”

But from the perspective of countries far more experienced in fighting terrorism, the United States appears to be overreacting. In a report last year, the GAO notes that no other major industrial nation comes close to the United States in mobilizing to protect itself against weapons of mass destruction. Ehud Sprinzak, professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, points out that none of the groups that have staged attacks against Israel, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, has ever tried to acquire weapons of mass destruction. “The chances for this are so slim that the magnitude of the effort cannot be justified,” Sprinzak observes. “Around the world, countries are laughing at the United States over this.”

With no clearly defined government strategy and no identifiable enemy, the massive federal effort to combat foreign terrorism at home could prove to be an ever expanding war. In an open society, every government building, every sports stadium, every highway could conceivably fall victim to a terrorist attack. “We are infinitely vulnerable,” says Parachini of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “By that reckoning, we’d have to give everyone gas masks and surround every building with the National Guard.”


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