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Target Terrorism: How Prepared Is America?

Aired October 15, 2001 - 19:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: I am very, very disappointed and angered.

Because we anticipated something like this, we are able to deal with it as successfully as we are this morning.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: A letter containing anthrax is delivered to Capitol Hill. While America is on alert for future terrorist attacks, are government warnings actually causing more panic? This is CROSSFIRE.

Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

President Bush stepped out of the White House with the visiting prime minister of Italy today to break some news. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's South Dakota office in Washington received a letter containing anthrax bacteria.

The office was quarantined, 40 unfortunate staffers locked inside, and visitor tours to the Capitol were suspended: just as coincidence, say the Capitol Police.

That's not all. An airliner landing in Cleveland was held on the tarmac -- along with its passengers -- while a white, powdery substance aboard was investigated. Nothing to it, it turned out.

A tiny amount of anthrax spores was found in the Boca Raton, Florida post office, and postal workers in Hamilton, New Jersey thought of anthrax when they got flu-like symptoms. We still don't know whether a master terrorist or a bunch of cranks are at work, or whether panic has seized America.

We are asking Ambassador Paul Bremer, former Clark chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism, and Steven Milloy, author of "Junk Science Judo: Protecting Yourself Against Health Scares and Scams."

Sitting in for Bill Press on the left is the Honorable Bill Richardson, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and former secretary of energy. BILL RICHARDSON, GUEST CO-HOST: Mr. Milloy, anthrax is just one of the threats. The FBI is worried about car bombs, truck bombs. Isn't it the responsibility of the government to inform the citizenry of potential threats? Isn't it up to the government to let the public know, so that they can make their own safety choices?

STEVEN MILLOY, CATO INSTITUTE: I see nothing wrong with the government informing the public of the risks out there, but I see a real problem with panicking people, which is what has been going on for the last month.

NOVAK: Ambassador Bremer, don't we have a case of three diagnosed instances and all these scares and scams? Haven't the government and the media worked the public into a frenzy?

PAUL BREMER, FORMER CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL COMMISSION ON TERRORISM: I think they have a bit. I think it's important to keep some balance in this threat. There is a threat, but let's not overdo it.

RICHARDSON: Mr. Milloy, our public health officials are saying the following: One, we don't have enough vaccines, limited supply of drugs, not enough beds, not enough emergency personnel to deal with potential anthrax, bubonic plague, sarin gas threats. Our budget, everybody agrees, on bioterrorism is too small, that we have not enough technologies to combat bioterrorism. Don't you agree that we need to be prepared?

MILLOY: Well, I do agree that we need to be prepared. If this is true, what they are saying, it's nothing new. It's something that they should have been talking about in the decades before now. They certainly have ample budgets that -- we give them tens of billions of dollars every year. They should be prepared. And if they are not prepared, then we need to ask questions why.

RICHARDSON: But looking at the fact that we don't have enough antibiotics, the secretary of health and human services has said that, that we don't have enough means to combat a potential threat to the public, that communities, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control went up to New York on this West Nile Virus, didn't have enough people and resources. Do you really think we are prepared?

MILLOY: I don't know that we don't have enough antibiotics. We have 2 million -- enough antibiotics to handle 2 million cases of anthrax for 60 days. I think that's more than ample for what we need now. If we want to have more as a cushion, fine. Smallpox -- we have ample supplies to handle a small outbreak should that occur, and it's very unlikely -- I think are basically prepared.

I think we need to look at what is going on in Florida, Nevada, New York. I think the local public health officials have a good handle on these situations. I think they deserve a lot of credit.

NOVAK: Just to put all this in perspective, Ambassador Bremer, I would like to have us all listen to Mayor Giuliani of New York, who seems to keep things on an even keel. Let's listen to them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), NEW YORK: When you consider the number of people in New York, over 8 million, the amount of people that travel through the city of New York and the amount of mail coming into the city of New York, we are dealing with one situation so far. And we can let the psychology of this kind of defeat us as opposed to remaining calm.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: What do you say that to that? Isn't that putting it in perspective?

BREMER: In any of this fight against terrorism, in particular in this threat of bioterrorism, which has such a high fear quotient, the government has to find the right balance between taking prudent steps to fight terrorism and not creating hysteria and frenzy. I think the statement by the FBI a few days ago, the sort of general blanket statement, was pretty irresponsible, basically. I don't understand what the purpose of it was, particularly coming at a time when the president in his press conference the night before had rightly said Americans need to get back to business. Let's go to school. Let's go to high school football games. Let's go out and enjoy ourselves and not get panicked.

NOVAK: I just want to report that CNN has confirmed that the mail room -- a mail room employee at the tabloid newspaper in Boca Raton is ill with anthrax. This is discovered by state officials. So, that's the fourth diagnosed case so far.

The kind -- I'm trying to put some of this in perspective when everybody is so nervous. The kind of anthrax, the skin anthrax that got such publicity when Tom Brokaw assistant was diagnosed with it -- I understand that every year there are 2,000 cases of this in the world each year. Rarely ever fatal. It's not a serious disease, is it?

BREMER: Well, I think I'll defer to Dr. Milloy on the medical question. That is correct. There are quite a few cases of cutaneous...

NOVAK: The reason I ask you the question, Paul, is it seems to be an overreaction to it.

BREMER: I agree with that. I think there is. On the other hand, there are some things we can do better. We need to have better detection. That is to say, we need to be sure that medical personnel are better trained to recognize the symptoms of things like anthrax or smallpox.

Nobody has dealt with a smallpox case in this country for 30 years, so doctors haven't looked at it.

We need better systems of communication and surveillance so that when we pick up reports and when we get them back to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. And we need better reaction in terms of vaccines and antibiotics. I agree with Dr. Milloy. We have some sufficient, perhaps, cases on hand now. But you probably want to have more. You should do that.

And we need to do some serious research into how we can look at future viral threats to us, viruses that may still be invented.

MILLOY: One problem we are going to have coming up now, Flu season is around the corner. The initial symptoms of anthrax is flu- like symptoms: headache, cough, fever. Public health people out there are advising people that if you have flu-like symptoms, don't assume it's just the flu. Go get tested for anthrax.

Pretty soon, in a month, most of America is going to have flu- like symptoms. We are going to bring our public health system to a grinding halt...

NOVAK: I'm starting to feel bad myself just talking about it.

MILLOY: ... unless we get a grip on this panic.

RICHARDSON: Dr. Milloy, you are not saying basically that bin Laden is bluffing about launching a series of attacks on the United States. State Department -- Ambassador Bremer served there with great distinction -- basically is saying now that five of the states that sponsor terrorism -- Libya, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Syria -- could launch a biological attack on the United States. A biological attack. Shouldn't that be a cause of great worry? Shouldn't we be prepared?

MILLOY: Well, we should be prepared. But we have to look at what the threats are. We can't prepare ourselves against every conceivable threat. We need to look at what the most credible threats are.

We can't build a bioterrorism Maginot Line, because we're just going to waste a lot of money and not accomplish anything. A smallpox type, for example, is very unlikely. The only stocks we know about are in CDC Atlanta and in Russia. There have been rumors that Iraq and North Korea might have some, but we really need better information.

Mass bioterrorism with anthrax is very, very unlikely. Iraq has liquid anthrax and some missiles, but not much, because even Iraq knows it's useless. They have not learned how to powderize anthrax in an effective weapon like we have in the United States and Russia.

RICHARDSON: Well, Ambassador Butler, the head of the former U.N. inspection team, disagrees with you. And he's saying that that liquid potential is there. Do you dispute that?

MILLOY: No. No. There's no question about it. They do have some missiles with liquid anthrax. But even the Iraqis know it's useless. They can fire that stuff. Either the missile explodes -- that's only going to cause cutaneous anthrax if you get hit by it. It's not powderized. You're not going to inhale it. And as Bob pointed out earlier, that's the least dangerous form of anthrax to get.

NOVAK: Ambassador Bremer, on this question of the capability of some of these countries, Larry Johnson, who was a counterterrorism official at the State Department during the Reagan administration, says none of these countries have the capability to deliver a chemical, biological assault.

Scott Ritter, who was a U.N.inspector in Iraq, is confident there are not the biological stocks. They were destroyed after the Gulf War, during the Gulf War and after the Gulf War. Are these people wrong in saying that Iraq, for one, does not have the capability to launch this kind of war?

BREMER: I think they are wrong. At least, I'm not confident that Iraq doesn't. They've had three years since the last inspection of the Iraqi capabilities, and that's plenty of time for Iraq to have reconstituted particularly its biological capabilities, because there was enormous amounts of growing medium that they took in before the Gulf War that are not accounted for.

So I think the safe assumption is that Saddam at least has done a fair amount of work the last three years to reconstitute.

But as Dr. Milloy points out, it is important for the American people to remember that weaponizing anthrax is really quite a difficult thing. You have to produce a powder if you are going to get inhalation anthrax, and then you have to find a way to disperse it, and that is difficult, too. So we ought to keep this in perspective.

It's a serious question. There are things we can do, but it's not, it seems to me, a cause of panic.

NOVAK: I want to get into this question of preparation. In the last fiscal year, the federal government spent about $10 billion on counterterrorism measures, 8.2 billion on chemical, biological and nuclear. That is 100 times more money than is spent on airport security. I think we are unprepared on airport security. With all due respect, Paul, haven't you just done such a good lobbying job that you have more money than you really need?

BREMER: First of all, I don't work for the government, so I don't lobby anybody. But the figures do point out a key problem that was pointed out by my bipartisan national commission on terrorism and several other commissions, which is we don't have a strategy. If you don't have a strategy for counterterrorism, there is no way to set your priorities. So the money gets spent wherever it gets spent. It gets spent on the things people want to spend it on rather than where it should be spent.

You are quite right. We have obviously underfunded airport security, and we perhaps have overfunded -- there's no way to know if we are spending too much because there's no strategy to measure it against. This is going to be Governor Ridge's job. He's going to have to come up with a strategy.

NOVAK: We're going to have take another break, take a break. And when we come back, we'll talk about who just is causing all this, these deliveries of anthrax through that lethal system, the U.S. mail.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In times of war the American people look to the government more than they do in times of peace. They count on government to help protect them. And we will. They count on the government to beat those who are trying to destroy us. And we will.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARDSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Sitting in for Bill Press, I'm Bill Richardson.

More anthrax scares across the country today, from the halls of Congress to a Florida post office. How worried should we be, and how ready are we?

Joining us tonight: Steven Milloy, author of "Junk Science Judo: Protecting Yourself Against Health Scares and Scams," and Ambassador Paul Bremer, former co-chair of the National Commission on Terrorism. Bob.

NOVAK: Ambassador Bremer, we spend a lot of time in the media trying to connect the dots on all these incidents, that they all come from post offices in New Jersey, Florida, they are all aimed at the media. You are the expert on terrorism. Do you see a pattern in these scattered -- and many of them unsubstantiated -- incidents?

BREMER: I don't see a pattern yet. I don't think at this point I would be prepared to say this looks like a terrorist -- a major terrorist attempt. It certainly doesn't have the hallmarks of bin Laden's kind of attacks, which are much better organized and take really massive casualties. It's more likely to be a series of criminal actions, maybe copycats with each other. But let's see how it develops over the coming days. For now, I don't think it looks like a major terrorist incident.

NOVAK: I have read that there has been in the last three years an estimated close to 300 anthrax hoaxes. That was before anthrax was on the front page.

BREMER: Right.

NOVAK: Isn't the fact that Ambassador Richardson is talking about this so much and I'm talking about it -- isn't this going to make a field day for the hoaxers?

BREMER: That's one of the problems. And it certainly is one of the problems that the government and the media overreact to this thing. I think what we want to do is keep calm about it. After all, there has been one fatality. That's one too many. That's not, it seems to me, the sign of something we should get hysterical about. RICHARDSON: Mr. Milloy, none of us want to be alarmist. I think this is clear. But it strikes me that you are not very worried. Is there any scenario in biochem concerns that we should be concerned about, that maybe disputes my view that you don't seem terribly concerned?

MILLOY: We are -- what we are seeing in New York, Nevada, Florida -- unfortunately, this sort of scenario can happen any time in the future and there's really nothing we can do about it. Should we be concerned? Yes, I guess. But what can we do about it? Not really much.

As far as mass anthrax, I don't think that's a real problem that we are going to face. Maybe smallpox. If for some reason, smallpox gets out of the U.S. and the Soviet Union into someone's hands, that could be a problem. And what we need to do is make sure we have enough smallpox vaccine.

RICHARDSON: Now I would like to roll to something the president and vice president said recently.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I have urged our fellow Americans to go about their lives, to fly on airplanes, travel, go to work.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's no reason for us to operate on the assumption that that was a one-off event that's never going to happen again. In fact, we have to assume it will happen again. That's the only sane way for us to proceed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARDSON: Now, Mr. Milloy, I'm trying to find something where you and I agree. I think the Bush administration has handled the bin Laden terrorism issue very well, except they are not sending the same message. Contradictory messages. Our two top leaders. Do you agree? And how important is this when you have a potential scare in the country of these dimensions?

MILLOY: I agree with you, Bill. I think the administration has dropped the ball on bioterrorism. Thank God for those local public health officials that have acted quickly, smartly, and contained these problems in Nevada, Florida and New York.

The administration are sending mixed signals. Sometimes they look like deer caught in the headlights. They really need to get their act together because it's not helping America.

NOVAK: I would like to personalize this, if I could. My colleague Al Hunt called me up on Friday morning and told me -- this was as the NBC News story was breaking -- not to open any of my mail. Believe it or not, he was worried about my well-being. And Don Rumsfeld, secretary of defense, was out today saying he's opening all his mail. He wants us to open -- if we want him to open our mail, they will do it. Who is right? Al Hunt or Don Rumsfeld?

BREMER: I'm not going to pick a fight with the administration. But I think the general point is -- anyway, the president did say this on -- I think actually it was the vice president who said it in his interview on "The News Hour" last week. People should take prudent steps. If you get mail that looks suspicious -- it's from people you don't know, the postmark is strange, it has stains or it's starting to...

NOVAK: It doesn't mean you can't open an ordinary letter.

BREMER: No. I think if you have a letter coming from people you know, of course you should open it. But you should be prudent. I don't think there's a cause for panic here. I think on the whole the administration has taken the right -- general right approach, which is we cannot let the terrorists wave us off leading our normal lives. That's what they want to do. We need to get back to normal.

The vice president is also right in that he said we are likely to have some counterattacks from the terrorists because of our military operations in Afghanistan. So there isn't as much of a contradiction, Bill, as you think there is in these two things. We have got to persevere here.

MILLOY: You know, the distinction between what the president and vice president is saying is so fine that you really have to be an expert to notice the difference. For the average American, it's a real problem.

NOVAK: Ambassador, one other personalized thing. A young lady who works for me came in this morning and said that she over the weekend had stoked up on antibiotics. She had really got a hoard of it in case it really gets bad and you can't get any. And I told her that -- I just made fun of her. That's not prudent, is it?

BREMER: No, it's not. You have many comments by medical professionals around the country saying it's a bad idea to stoke up on antibiotics. First of all, you don't know what their effect on you is going to be and whether it's safe for you to take them. And second, they do go stale at a certain point. And thirdly, you may be taking antibiotics away from people who will need them at some point.

People are rushing out and buying gas masks. A gas mask does you virtually no good unless you have it on before the attack. It has to be professionally fitted even then for it to be of any use. So I think everybody ought to just take a deep breath here. Just relax.

RICHARDSON: Mr. Milloy, what's the proper balance here? My sense is that you are saying because the odds are small that we shouldn't invest and we shouldn't put some more funds and more concern about vaccines and more medical personnel. Let me give you the floor.

MILLOY: Well, I think that if we do need more money to spend for preventing bioterrorism, then we can take some money from some other efforts in the public health community. We don't need to spend money chasing down traces of chemicals in the environment if we have a real terrorist threat. I don't think that we need to be scaring the public about the possibility of a bioterrorist attack with anthrax.

The president of the American Public Health Association wrote in "The Washington Post" last week that if anthrax was released over Washington, D.C., it would kill 10,000 people. That's just a reckless disregard for the truth.

BREMER: Some of the things I think, Bill, that we can do in public health, we should be doing anyway for the public health. The points I made -- educating people for detection, building a more robust surveillance system so you get the information -- these are things we should do anyway, sort of dual-use things that we can spend money on now that would be useful in the event of an actual attack.

NOVAK: Ambassador Paul Bremer, thank you very much. Steven Milloy, thank you. Dr. Richardson and I will be back with closing comments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: Bill, there's never a problem that you liberals don't think will be solved by throwing money at it. Now the public health lobby is saying that because there's three, four diagnosed cases of anthrax that we want to spend $1 billion more on public health. I don't think that's appropriate.

RICHARDSON: Well, Bob, I think what is important is that we be ready. We have a different threat. It's Osama bin Laden, anthrax. We have got a public very concerned. I think the government has the responsibility to explain the threat, to be better prepared.

I don't see anything wrong with stocking up on antibiotics, on vaccines. We don't have enough. It strikes me that it's better to be ready. Having served in the government, the worst, worst thing you can do is go out there without a plan and without some resources.

NOVAK: Having been in the Army a long time ago, when they taught me how to use a gas mask, I'm never going to put a gas mask on because of a lot of frightened bureaucrats, I guarantee you that.

RICHARDSON: From the left, I'm Bill Richardson. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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