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In the Crossfire

Dirty tricks with dirty bombs

(CNN) -- A U.S. citizen who allegedly planned to build and explode a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States is being held at the Consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston, South Carolina, apart from the regular brig population. Federal officials say they captured suspected al Qaeda operative Abdullah Al Muhajir -- who was born Jose Padilla -- while the plot was still in the initial planning stages.

What exactly is a dirty bomb and how much damage could it cause? Air Force Col. Randy Larsen, director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, joined "Crossfire" hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson to explain.

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CARLSON: Colonel Larsen, if a terrorist were to surround, say, two sticks of dynamite with some low-level radioactive material and set it off here in Washington, what would happen?

LARSEN: OK, three things that we need to understand about what would happen: First of all, it's easy to do like you just said -- that's one of the things we need to understand. It is easy. It's going to happen some day. There would be an explosion.

We did an exercise here a couple of months ago... They responded to the explosion in front of the Air and Space Museum. It was about an hour and a half later until they realized it was radiological because that's not something they look for and that's a big lesson learned for state and local folks.

If there is a car bomb or a truck bomb, you should be looking for a radiological dispersal device. That's part of the 21st century now. What happened there was that most of the people that would be killed or injured are from the explosion, not from the radiological dispersal device.

If you were standing there smoking a cigarette half a mile away, it would be far more dangerous to your health smoking the cigarette than the radiological part. We understand that there could be psychological damage. A lot of people say there'll be more heart attacks than there will be anyone hurt from the radiological part.

The other part is that it's going to be an economic problem to clean it up. Now the good news is, we need to understand that of all the weapons we're concerned about in the 21st century -- nuke, radiological, biological, chemical -- this is the most likely but it's the one America is best prepared for because we've had 50 years to prepare for it.

The Department of Energy has been worrying about this for a long time. We have some of the leading scientists in the country that would be on airplanes in less than an hour in route to wherever the explosion was. And so in preventing it, in responding to it and cleaning up, we are better prepared for this than any other event we're likely to expect from international terrorism.

BEGALA: Well, Colonel, let me come back to preventing it. [U.S. federal officials announced Monday that they] arrested a man who was allegedly plotting this. What if, God forbid, someone was actually trying to smuggle one in? What powers of detection do we have to try to stop this?

LARSEN: Like I said, we are better prepared to prevent this than any other. One of the things that's very effective right now is we have thousands of Americans working in airports, working in seaports at all of our border crossings -- not just in the United States -- but all around the world carrying devices that look just like this.

A common pager is what it looks like. But if you drive by in a truck, a car, carry a suitcase or briefcase by this, it not only detects the gamma rays coming out of the cesium 137 or the cobalt 60, it sends a signal off to a satellite and we know where you are and it's detected.

So it is so much easier to detect radiological than biological weapons like we did in the dark winter exercise. You can't detect that. There is no device to detect that if they smuggle that in.

BEGALA: That was an exercise of smallpox.

LARSEN: Smallpox -- if you had an attack in the United States -- that's a big challenge we have. This one, though, we're much better prepared for, and I don't lose a lot of sleep over this. The economic damage, yes, there would be some.

Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston a few years ago... or Hurricane Andrew in Miami would cause far more economic disaster to an area than a radiological dispersal device. It's not something to panic about. Like I say, more people will die from heart attacks from worrying about it. You would just need to leave the area. And even if you were exposed to it for a few hours, that's not a problem. We're talking long-term exposure that could cause cancer 20 or 30 years down the road. It's not something to panic about.




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