Nation highly exposed to future terrorist attacks, experts warn

More than four months after the most devastating terrorist attack on U.S. soil in history, the nation remains highly exposed to attacks from terrorists using nuclear, biological, chemical or radiological weapons, according to numerous experts speaking at a security conference at Syracuse University last week.

Experts cited the volume and pace of people and commercial goods entering the United States, economic pressures of a global economy, recent advancements in molecular biology and a fragmented federal workforce as contributors to the vulnerability of Americans.

"For the foreseeable future, there will be anti-American terrorists with global reach," said Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Sept. 11 attacks highlighted a central paradox of modern life, he said. To prosper, nations must be open to the free flow of people, goods and ideas across borders, yet that same freedom, without adequate controls, enables the spread of a range of transnational threats, including terrorism.

A case in point is the container shipping trade. There are more than 500,000 companies and 40,000 freight forwarders worldwide in the business of packing and loading the 40 million shipping containers that are the backbone of the global economy. Because there are no standards governing the way containers are loaded or who loads them, "nobody in the supply chain has a clue as to what's in the box," Flynn said.

Instead of waiting to inspect goods at their final destination, nations need to start securing goods before they are loaded onto ships. By imposing international packing and loading standards, establishing secure facilities at loading docks and using theft-resistant mechanical or electronic seals at ports of origin, nations could vastly improve security in commercial shipping.

Although missile defense remains a major concern among Defense officials in the Bush administration, it should be clear by now there are more immediate threats, said Flynn. "Why would I invest in a missile when the terrestrial and maritime frontiers are wide open?" Enormous Vulnerabilities

Not surprisingly, following the September terrorist hijackings most of the energy on Capitol Hill has been focused on shoring up airport security. But the actions taken thus far have been aimed more at comforting a jittery public than in substantially improving security, said Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University. Although Congress created a new federal agency to handle security at airports, hiring and training new employees and equipping the new agency poses tremendous challenges, both short- and long-term, Jenkins said. In the meantime, simpler, and potentially more effective measures, have not been taken. For example, the FBI still does not provide the airlines with names of potential terrorists, Jenkins said. In addition, the new aviation and transportation security law focuses on screening baggage rather than people. Israel, which arguably has the most secure aviation system in the world, does just the opposite, Jenkins said. What's more, different skills are needed for screening baggage than for screening people, a distinction that is too often overlooked, he said. Perhaps the most devastating terrorist scenarios involve biological weapons, said Tara O'Toole, a medical doctor and director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies. The chaos and stress on health care systems caused by 18 confirmed cases of anthrax last fall, which resulted in five deaths, is an indication of the toll a major attack involving biological weapons could take on the institutions and social fabric of the nation, she said. "Biological weapons are capable of taking the country past the point of no-recovery," she said. Although the anthrax outbreak was limited and the disease is not contagious, it still overwhelmed laboratories and state and local health departments. The growing power of biological science has been largely overlooked and little understood by government officials, O'Toole said. Unlike nuclear physics, where it is relatively easy to gauge the intent of research programs, "the only way you can tell the difference between good biology and dark biology is in the application," she said. And by then, it is potentially too late. To prepare for and protect against a terrorist attack involving biological agents, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies need to develop a strategy for preparing health care workers to diagnose, treat and report cases of bioterrorism; boost the public health system's ability to track and contain epidemics and invest more heavily in biomedical research and development programs, O'Toole said. Revitalizing the nation's health care institutions with trained personnel and critical technology is essential to improving security, she said. Of course none of these things is easy. Numerous reports and studies have shown that the federal work force is poorly structured to cope with terrorist threats that span the expertise and jurisdiction of existing bureaucracies. Forging a national strategy for securing the homeland is essential, said Michael Wermuth, a senior policy analyst with the RAND Corporation. President Bush created the Office of Homeland Security last October to do just that. But its success, which is by no means guaranteed, rests on Office of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and his reportedly close relationship with President Bush. While the office is to "advise" agencies across government on how they fund and manage terrorism programs, Ridge has no authority over agency budgets or management. The executive order that created Ridge's position uses the word "coordinate" 32 times; the word "direct" does not appear once, noted Wermuth. "The office has no authority to direct anything. If it works--and it could work--it will be on the strength of the personalities and on the friendship between Ridge and the President," Wermuth said. At the very least, the Office of Homeland Security should have the authority to create operational joint task forces that combine elements of agencies with border control authority for specific tasks, Wermuth said. "It's less draconian than [other recommendations], but Tom Ridge doesn't even have that authority right now."

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