"A clear and present danger"
As Americans worry about truck bombs, germ warfare and worse, they wonder: Can our government do anything to stop the next terror attack?
The phone lines in the office of Sheriff Bruce Bryant, of York County, S.C., started burning up around 8 p.m. on the night of Saturday, Sept. 15. Helicopters had been seen heading up the Catawba River toward a nuclear power station. Soon two F-16 fighter jets arrived on the scene, and Bryant heard a "tremendous, thunderous noise." A little later, choppers were spotted near the Oconee nuclear plant near Clemson, 90 miles away. Then, shortly after midnight, several more were reported flying over the Savannah River Site, a Department of Energy facility that occupies more than 360 sq. mi. along the border of South Carolina and Georgia. Nuclear waste is disposed of there, and weapons are restocked with tritium. Authorities closed down a highway that runs through the base, until the FBI gave the all clear. But Bryant and his frightened neighbors still don't know what happened that night. Utility-industry analysts say Catawba was subject to a security test, but the feds won't confirm anything. "It's like it never happened," says John Paolucci, of the South Carolina emergency preparedness service. "But it did."
If people in York County are nervous, they've got a huge support group. America has become a jittery nation since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and with good reason. Attorney General John Ashcroft appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and declared that "terrorism is a clear and present danger to Americans today." Information available to the FBI, Ashcroft continued, "indicates a potential for additional terrorist incidents." He didn't bother to add what everyone knew: the next incidents could be even more ghastly than those of Sept. 11. A terrorist group prepared to murder more than 6,000 civilians would feel no compunction about killing 60,000--or 600,000--if it could deploy the necessary weapons of mass destruction. And so the fear of such an attack--and the government's hasty efforts to contain the threat--became the nation's No. 1 item of business.
From coast to coast, Americans experienced things for which they were quite unprepared. State troopers patrolled airports. "It was like traveling through a combat zone," said Marcia Brier, from Needham, Mass., of a trip from Boston's Logan Airport. At Reagan National Airport in Washington, the gleaming, airy terminal that opened in 1997 remained closed. A tanker carrying 33 million gallons of liquefied natural gas was diverted from highly populated Boston Harbor to Louisiana, just as a precaution. In Idaho and Maryland, there were panicky rumors of missing crop dusters. The Los Angeles subway was shut down for the first time in its history, as passengers complained of dizziness and itchy eyes. No chemical agents were found.
All the while, law-enforcement officers were continuing the greatest dragnet the world had ever seen. FBI sources downplayed the possibility of a second wave of attacks. But less than three weeks after the catastrophe, Ashcroft said that a total of 480 people had already been arrested or detained. Hundreds more had been picked up around the globe, with authorities paying particular attention to possible terrorist support networks in Germany and Britain. Those scooped up included a few who appeared to have links to the hijackers, and some who just had the wrong sort of look at the wrong sort of time. In DeFuniak Springs, a small town in the Florida panhandle, a local librarian remembered that the hijackers had used library computers to book flight reservations, saw a man from the Middle East seated at a keyboard and called the police. (The man was guilty of nothing.) Those driving into Manhattan were stuck in lines of the sort usually seen only in Bangkok or Mexico City, as authorities made carpools compulsory and searched every van and truck, especially those licensed to carry hazardous materials. "This is how it is because this is how it has to be," said a law-enforcement official, according to the New York Post. "This is a police state now."
It's not. But there was a pervasive sense that things weren't as they had been. How could they be, when the President gave the Pentagon the authority to shoot down any hijacked civilian airliner? Pundits quickly learned to trot out the phrase "homeland security," with its faintly Orwellian overtones. And, as often happens in national emergencies, the desire of law enforcement for a free hand bumped into the rights and protections set down by men in wigs in the late 18th century.
In one sense, that's surprising, because in recent years the police have pretty much got what they asked for. As recently as 1998, the year that terrorists bombed two American embassies in Africa, President Clinton granted law-enforcement officials a wish list of extra investigative powers. "Any one of these extremely valuable tools," said a senior FBI official at the time, "could be the keystone" to a successful operation against terrorists. For the bureau, it seems, no kit ever has enough tools. Three years later, it is back for more. In the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, Ashcroft seeks to give cops and the FBI yet more powers, including a provision that would allow the Justice Department to detain immigrants suspected of terrorism indefinitely, in contrast to the current time limit of 48 hours. A coalition of civil libertarians and conservatives suspicious of big government has slowed the bill's progress through Congress. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy told TIME that "the biggest danger is that [terrorists] unravel the constitutional protections we've spent 200 years as a democracy to build." By last Thursday, however, Leahy was on the phone to Ashcroft, suggesting that staff members work through the weekend to iron out the remaining points of disagreement.
If fear can erode constitutional protections, it can also eat the soul. Few objects speak to numbing, nameless dread so much as the gas mask, which not long ago seemed an artifact of World War I battlefields. Now there is a run on them. The Army Surplus Warehouse in Idaho Falls sold 180 masks through its website in two hours. A man in New York placed an order for 500 masks for his employees; they work in an office building near ground zero. A book on germ warfare became an unexpected best seller.
Across the country, people changed their behavior--Come to think of it, why shouldn't my teenage girl have a cell phone?--and redefined their lives. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported that her chums were debating the finer points of gas masks and antibiotics. St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, Fla., are among the few localities in the country that, under the auspices of the military, have held practice drills to respond to chemical and biological disasters. Says Lieutenant Scott Stiener of the Pinellas County sheriff's office: "We're going to have to be a lot more suspicious." Stiener wonders if we'll be able to trust the guy who comes to spray our house or office for bugs; he may have something dangerous in his can. Life has already changed for Bryan McCraw, police chief of the small town of Guin, Ala. McCraw ticketed a Saudi driver for running a red light on Labor Day but didn't search the car. On Sept. 11, cops stopped the same man for driving with a flat tire near Washington's Dulles Airport and found flight manuals in the vehicle. "I'm looking for drugs. I'm not looking for flight manuals," said McCraw. "Somebody is going to have to train us on what to do."
Somebody is going to have to train us all. As Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania prepares to step into his new job as director of Homeland Security, Americans want to know how real these threats are. You don't buy gas masks unless you expect an unspeakable horror. So people are asking: What are the chances that the clear and present danger will manifest as attacks using biological agents like anthrax or smallpox, or chemical compounds like sarin? Will they be sprayed from a crop duster or dumped in the water supply? What is the likelihood that the next attack would be marked not by smoke drifting from lower Manhattan to Brooklyn but by a mushroom cloud?
Officials cannot afford to be sanguine, but when it comes to biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, they try to be realistic. There have been reports that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network has tried to buy fissile material and has experimented with chemical agents. But "it's very difficult for terrorists to manufacture, transport and dispense these types of weapons," says a counterterrorism official. (The spray nozzles on your garden-variety crop duster, for example, are not ideal for the dispersal of deadly germs.) In the Pentagon, officials take the same view: weapons of mass destruction, they think, are beyond the range of "nonstate" actors. Terrorists have so far not been able to acquire an assembled nuclear weapon. Nor do they have the expertise to build and deliver one.
But that's no reason not to make their job as difficult as we possibly can. In 1991, Congress passed a wide-ranging law--named for its principal sponsors, Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar--to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation. Nunn-Lugar and other programs spend $872 million a year to safeguard the former Soviet Union's weapons of mass destruction. Washington has had some spectacular successes in this field; in 1994, more than 1,300 lbs. of fissile material were airlifted from Kazakhstan to the U.S. But critics contend that Nunn-Lugar is underfunded. The Bush Administration has proposed cutting its budget $100 million this year, a sum that took $20 million out of a program designed to find jobs for unemployed Russian nuclear scientists. Now we must hope they haven't gone to work for bin Laden.
But even if Nunn-Lugar were goldplated, it wouldn't obviate the great lesson of Sept. 11: you don't need so-called weapons of mass destruction to devastate a society. A few airplanes will do. "That's why it was so brilliant," says a Pentagon official. A senior aide to Vice President Dick Cheney falls back on football metaphors. The Administration remains worried about the need to defend against "the long bomb"--a chemical, biological or nuclear attack. But just as crucial, this aide argues, is to protect against "short yardage"--attacks on bridges, tunnels, power plants, chemical-storage facilities and refineries. "There are hundreds of these targets," says a Pentagon official, "and attacking them with conventional means--a truck full of explosives--is a heck of a lot easier than building an atom bomb or a chemical weapon."
That's why, among those paid to think about the ultimate horror, the phrase of the moment is not "weapons of mass destruction" but "weapons of mass effect." The planes that flew into the World Trade Center were just such weapons. They were "conventional," in a sense, but designed to cause great loss of life and spread chaos and despair. The hijackers didn't need sophisticated technology. Nor may their successors. The East Coast power grid, for example, has less than half a dozen key switching points. Six truck bombs, packed with nothing more sophisticated than the fertilizer that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City six years ago, could disrupt the economy of half the nation.
That's precisely what the bad guys had in mind the last time the U.S. faced a serious threat to homeland security. In 1942 two German submarines landed teams of four people each at Amagansett, N.Y., and Ponte Vedra, Fla. The Germans were supposed to blow up hydroelectric plants, key railroad junctions and spread terror in New York by bombing railroad stations and Jewish-owned department stores. The operation was a fiasco; within two weeks, all eight men were caught (six were later executed), but the threat was, and is, real.
All of which helps explain the attention now being paid to hazardous-material licenses. From July 1999 to January 2000, authorities say, an examiner in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation issued commercial driver's licenses to 20 men without requiring them to take mandatory tests. All but two of the licenses covered haz-mat transport. By the end of last week, all 20 men were in custody. The FBI said that they did not appear to have a connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. But that was scant comfort; they might have had their own scary plans. At the least, the scam exposed gaping holes in the haz-mat licensing process--there are 2.5 million of the licenses nationwide, and in some states they're a notorious source of kickbacks.
It was another reminder that guarding against weapons of mass destruction may miss the real threat. When 100 Florida law-enforcement officials, utility executives and emergency-response officials met in Tallahassee last week, it wasn't a nuclear or biological threat that was most on their mind. It was a conventional attack on the Port of Miami, on the Sunshine Skyway that spans Tampa Bay, or on that most American of symbols, Walt Disney World.
Tom Ridge has the square-jawed profile and can-do resume--blue-collar background, Harvard, staff sergeant in Vietnam--to reassure even the most jittery parent contemplating a family vacation in Orlando. Ridge will need all that and more. He has not yet assumed his new post, which does not require a Senate vote. Officials have "red tagged" his security clearance, hoping he can get the O.K. in two weeks, not the eight months that some Administration officials have been waiting. In a series of White House meetings this week, Ridge started to divide his responsibilities into three baskets. The first will concentrate on emergency response, building on the work of the existing Federal Emergency Management Agency. A second will look at "hardening" targets now so soft that they may tempt terrorists. In the third basket, working with Bush's National Security Council (of which Ridge will be a member), the new office will seek to coordinate intelligence and law-enforcement activities against terrorism.
Senior Administration officials have promised that Ridge will be given budget "pass-back" authority, which means that he will be able to direct the agencies under his purview, like the border patrol, to reorder their spending priorities. His staff is expected to be about 100 strong, many detailed from other agencies. Ridge has already picked Mark Holman, his oldest and most trusted political associate, to run the operation as chief of staff, and is eyeing Admiral Steve Abbott, who has been the military voice on the homeland-security staff currently housed in the Vice President's office. White House officials say Ridge will have as much access to the President as Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser. In the currency of Washington, that's saying a lot, for nobody has more. Ridge, White House officials say, will probably soon have an office in the West Wing.
It had better be a big one, with copious bookshelves and an acre of bare wall. The shelves can hold the reports, of which there have been depressingly many, on the nation's lack of preparedness for homeland security. (The three most recent ones total more than 500 dire pages. And the new General Accounting Office report says that federal bioterrorism defense is so chaotic the agencies can't even agree on which threats to worry about.) The wall space is needed for Ridge's organizational chart, for he will have to coordinate the activities of more than 40 federal agencies--and an unknown but much larger number in state and local governments. On Capitol Hill, if Ridge is ever foolish enough to stray into the building where he served 12 years as a member of the House, 26 full committees of Congress and 17 subcommittees deal with homeland-security matters.
Coordinate is the key word here. Against the recommendations of the recent commission on national security chaired by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, Ridge will not be in charge of a superagency into which have been folded operational arms of the Federal Government like FEMA. That may be a mistake. If there is one thing more depressing than the number of reports on homeland security, it is the unanimity of their conclusions. At present, coordination simply doesn't happen; homeland defense is a patchwork quilt made by an inept seamstress. Some stories would be funny if they weren't being told against a backdrop of tragedy. There was the recent joint exercise of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, during which agents argued for an hour over who was in charge, while actors playing the dead and dying got hypothermia. There is the sad tale of the Center for Defense Preparedness run by the Department of Justice, which "trains trainers" to respond to toxic emergencies--and whose current budget allows it to operate at 25% of capacity. There is the rivalry--or is it hatred?--between the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Customs Service, neither of which seems ever to have willingly shared a piece of information with the other.
For old hands, though, one rivalry dwarfs all the others. A senior adviser to President George H.W. Bush says that the historic tensions between G-men and spooks at times seem insurmountable. "One of the things we need," says Senator Harry Reid, "is someone with the authority to force the CIA and the FBI to cooperate."
The incompatibilities run deep. The bureau's job is to find evidence that will stand up in a criminal court, while the agency just wants intelligence. But some observers think the old enmities have abated. The deputy director of each agency's counterterrorism division comes from the other one, and joint FBI-CIA operations have had a few notable successes. The real problem, says Representative Saxby Chambliss, a Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Homeland Security, is that the heroes of Langley and the Hoover building won't share information with agencies like the INS and the Federal Aviation Administration--both vital to Ridge's mission. "The dialogue between federal agencies," says Chambliss, "is not at the level that it should be."
And the dialogue between federal and state officials? Ask Governors that question, then duck. Governor Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho says that the adjutant-general of his state National Guard is not allowed to share intelligence with him. Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma, a former FBI agent who took part this summer in a disastrous war game of a smallpox attack, says he was "stunned" at the level of ignorance displayed by the feds about what goes on at a state and local level. And Philadelphia police chief John Timoney says, "The feds actually think that the locals, you can't trust them, they're corrupt, they'll sell information." When working with federal agencies as a senior officer in New York, he says, "there was always a sense that you were not fully briefed on everything that was going on."
This isn't just whining. If homeland security has shock troops, they work for state and city governments. "The best response is local," says Keating. "You have to have doctors and nurses and emergency services and police and National Guard who are trained to respond." At present, there are huge holes in that training. Keating freely admits that "doctors and nurses in my state know nothing about anthrax and smallpox."
Can Ridge bring order to this chaos and make an anxious nation believe its government can actually stop--or at least manage--another disaster? The omens aren't good. Without operational authority, successive drug czars have found it extraordinarily difficult to get the relevant agencies to work together. Ridge has an extra problem. If counterterrorism is one of his chief missions, he will have to work closely with the armed forces. Yet not only is the military--properly--barred from performing law-enforcement duties, it also has spent little time figuring out how to discharge any new functions. "I never thought we'd see fighters over our cities defending against a threat that came from inside," Air Force General Richard Myers, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said. "This whole issue of homeland defense needs a lot more thought."
It probably does, not least by those members of the public who, in an understandable reaction to Sept. 11, are loading up on antibiotics and salves. That mood may not last. In the 1950s and '60s, the Federal Civil Defense Administration--remember duck and cover?--distributed 400 million pieces of literature to Americans. But civil defense never really caught on. By 1963, only 1 person in 50 had access to even a rudimentary shelter.
The great difference, of course, is visible in lower Manhattan; Moscow never did drop the Big One. But one day, after they've scoured the Web for a gas mask, and told one another that they're quite comfortable with the idea that airports need to look like armed camps, Americans might heed Daniel Seidemann's wise words. Seidemann is an Israeli lawyer, and hence a man for whom homeland security is an existential matter. "Society needs a balance between Athens and Sparta," he says. "If you're Athens, there's no security. If you're Sparta, you have security, but nobody wants to live there. You're talking about a balance between things that are inherently flawed." As America defends against terror, may it find a balance it can live with.
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: October 8, 2001
"A clear and present danger"
A background check on Bush's plan for safer skies
A wealthy clan and its renegade
Following the money
Here's a better way to be secure
Selling a long And slow war
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