ANOTHER ATTACK: IT CAN HAPPEN HERE



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Last Updated

29 Dec 2002

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, December 29, 2002

SUNDAY INSIGHT

Another attack: It can happen here

Vicki Haddock, Insight Staff Writer

The unthinkable has become the inevitable.

Each night in the coming year, Americans will go snug to our beds as eerie White House warnings reverberate in our heads: The United States should brace for a second-wave terrorist attack likely to be even more spectacular than the first. They say it's not a question of if, but when.

But many experts say our preparations for that attack are woefully weak and inadequate. No one from President Bush on down discounts the risk, however.

"We are entering a time of especially grave danger," reads a new Council on Foreign Relations report, published in the fall, from a task force that includes former secretaries of state, former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, a former director of the CIA and FBI and three Nobel laureates.

Noting that America is planning to attack a ruthless adversary who may well have access to weapons of mass destruction, the report concludes we remain "dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to" the likely terrorism in our immediate future.

"After a year without a new attack and with our leaders dithering over bureaucracy and funding, the lack of a sense of urgency is appalling," said former Sen. Gary Hart, co-chair of the task force and the U.S. Commission on National Security, which issued similar, largely ignored warnings before Sept. 11.

The frustration is echoed by participants in a science and technology panel assembled by the National Academies: Virtually all of the 134 emergency recommendations they made half a year ago for reducing our vulnerability are still on the shelf.

Panel co-chair Lewis Branscomb, professor emeritus at Harvard and former chief scientist at IBM, calls the coming Iraq venture "an expensive and dangerous diversion" from the real mission of defending against a next attack.

In another terrorist attack, Americans can count on first-responders -- firefighters, medics and police -- to demonstrate the professionalism and raw courage witnessed Sept. 11. But they will be forced to do so without many of the tools they need.

Less than half of public health departments have e-mail, for example. More than 70 percent of cities across the country still cannot afford to buy enough hazardous materials suits to protect the rescue workers who would arrive first following a chemical attack. And thus far, none of the $3.5 billion Congress authorized to local governments for first-responders has even been delivered.

"People running our cities are very, very aware that more needs to be done, " said Karen Anderson, outgoing president of the National League of Cities and mayor of Minnetonka, Minn. "I'd say, please follow through with the funds so desperately needed by our first-responders."

If another major attack exposes lax preparedness, many Americans will question delays that may have seemed justifiable inside the Beltway but were inexcusable elsewhere. Why should it take at least five years for the Homeland Security Department to become fully operational? Why has the smallpox vaccination program been mired in wrangling over legal liability? Wasn't it foolish for the Defense Department to purge some Arabic-language translators because they are gay?

In case of another attack, some political analysts predict, the American public once again will fail to blame President Bush, because they understand the impossibility of absolute security. Instead, they credit him with making progress in security matters, especially as long as another attack does not occur.

Others say the public will be less forgiving the second time around. "Nobody has accused this president of working too hard. If he's got time to go out on the campaign trail for all those Republican candidates for Congress, he's got time to deal with (civil defense)," scolded former Sen. Hart. "Franklin Delano Roosevelt fought a Depression and World War II at the same time."

No clairvoyant can predict precisely how the country would weather a second attack. But analysts are prepared to make educated guesses as a way of assessing our readiness.

The most optimistic scenarios are isolated and manageable -- say, a cyber- attack that plays havoc with air traffic control but is ultimately thwarted by a backup defense system, triggers no plane crashes and barely alters an economy that's looking up in 2003.

There are also worst-case scenarios. For example: "suicide terrorists" infected with deadly smallpox circulate through Disneyland, the Mall of America and other bustling icons, triggering an uncontainable epidemic on a yet-to-be-vaccinated population, forcing mass closures of schools and businesses and sending the economy into free-fall.

Last year, a government simulation indicated 15,000 people would contract smallpox, and 1,000 would die, within two weeks of the first patients showing signs of illness. Although the risky smallpox vaccine is effective up to five days after exposure, panicked Americans could swamp the public health system, and there wouldn't be enough licensed vaccine to go around.

When TEC International asked more than 1,000 CEOs this month about their greatest concern for the economic future, few cited higher taxes, energy prices, war or labor shortages. What 40 percent feared most was another terrorist attack here.

The financial ripples of terrorism spread in unexpected patterns, as Sept. 11 underscored. When the U.S.-Canadian border shut down briefly after the attack, many of the "Big Three" automakers' assembly plants went idle within two days, stopping production of $1 million worth of cars at each plant every single hour.

Imagine in 2003 an explosion at the ports of either Long Beach or Los Angeles, which together take in almost half of the maritime containers arriving in the country, not to mention nearly a quarter of California's imported crude oil. The resulting shutdown of West Coast ports would cost at least $1 billion a day and strand much of the state without refined fuels.

"The most likely place for the next attack isn't on an airline, it's rail or a seaport or infrastructure. The shock to the system will be huge, and the country will insist on entirely revamping security at a huge cost," said David Kotok, president of Cumberland Advisors Inc., and a survivor of the World Trade Center attack.

On the other hand, the economy may bounce back from another attack better this time because more fiscal and monetary stimuli are in the pipeline, and because the Federal Reserve reassured the markets by responding calmly and efficiently to Sept. 11.

Public health labs, however, could crash under surging demand for tests in the event of a biological attack. For example, seven months after the anthrax mailings, there was a backlog of thousands of unexamined specimens suspected of contamination.

Many state and local public health agencies face budget cuts. The inadvertent result, according to Dr. Georges Benjamin, head of the American Public Health Association: 2003 will be a year of fiscal emergency for public health.

A second attack likely would precipitate a further crackdown on civil liberties.

"Privately, that's a huge concern for us," said Samuel Walker, author of a book on the history of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Another attack will undoubtedly be used to justify more government snooping, including on innocent people. I think we've learned from our history not to inter Arab Americans as we did Japanese Americans in World War II. It'll be something different -- maybe drastic immigration controls."

How would the American psyche weather another attack?

Psychologists say, in one sense, it will be more painful because Americans still haven't fully healed from the trauma of Sept. 11 -- a skinned knee bumped again is more likely to bleed.

"But one of the most fascinating things about human nature is our amazing adaptability," said Jana Martin, incoming president of the California Psychological Association. "We learn to live with the situations we're in, whether it's people in war-torn countries, or in families with rampant abuse, or in an area like California where a major earthquake could hit at any moment. "

If the experts are right about more terrorism in America's future, resilience will be a prized commodity.