he scenario was plausible: Congress was preparing to vote on controversial legislation that was sure to incite furor among extremist groups hostile to the government. Fearing a terrorist attack, Washington emergency and security workers were on alert. Just in case it was needed, a Marine Corps counter-terrorism unit was standing by at a naval base in Anacostia, a few miles south of Capitol Hill.
So when "terrorists" released the deadly nerve gas sarin into an underground parking garage across from the Rayburn House Office Building on April 30, the Marines and District of Columbia emergency personnel responded quickly in a portentous demonstration of how the military can assist local officials facing global threats. More than 100 Marines, many wearing chemical-protection suits and gas masks, and carrying electronic detection and monitoring equipment, swarmed the area around the garage, assisting "sick" pedestrians. The Marines quickly set up tents where patients could be sprayed with a bleach solution to decontaminate them so medical personnel could begin treatment.
Although the demonstration was staged, the threat is real. Two years ago, members of a Japanese cult killed 12 people and sickened nearly 5,000 others when they released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway. The incident heightened concern about the vulnerability of U.S. cities to similar acts of terrorism.
"Most of our adversaries now know better than to go against us force-on-force," says Lt. Col. Arthur Corbett, commander of the Marine Corps Chemical/Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF), whose members participated in the demonstration. As a result, they are more likely to resort to terrorism, using biological and chemical weapons against U.S. troops and civilians, he says.
Biological and chemical weapons have long been considered the poor nation's nuclear weapon, because they are comparatively easy and cheap to develop and use and can kill thousands.
Defense officials estimate that about 30 countries possess mature chemical and biological weapons programs, at least 12 of which have advanced missile capabilities. In a speech at the University of Georgia in April, Defense Secretary William Cohen said, "This scenario of a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon in the hands of a terrorist cell or rogue nation is not only plausible, it's really quite real."
FBI Director Louis Freeh is so concerned about terrorism in the United States he has tripled the bureau's counter-terrorism force over the last three years, raising to 2,600 the number of FBI personnel dedicated to the effort. The CIA, too, has weighed in with a recently created Terrorism Warning Group, "whose sole mission is to make sure that civilian and military leaders are alerted to specific terrorist threats," CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Appropriations Committee in May. At the same hearing, Freeh said several Middle East terrorist organizations have U.S. cells, "which could be used to support terrorist activity here."
To beef up defenses against such an attack, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is heading up an interagency Domestic Preparedness Program to develop a coordinated federal response to terrorism and enhance state and local response capabilities.
The case for such a program was well-made April 24, just a week prior to the Marine Corps' Capitol Hill demonstration, when mail-room personnel at the Washington headquarters of the Jewish service organization B'nai B'rith discovered a package containing a broken Petri dish with a label suggesting it held the deadly bacterial agent anthrax. More than 100 workers were quarantined for over eight hours and several city blocks were cordoned off while emergency personnel responded to the situation. Because Washington firefighters do not have decontamination tents, some employees were forced to strip to their underwear in public while they were sprayed with a solution of bleach and water in case they had been exposed to the lethal agent. Only many hours later did scientists at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., determine the package was a hoax.
A Growing Arsenal
Under the Domestic Preparedness Program, the Defense Department will take the lead in evaluating and training officials in the 120 largest U.S. cities, beginning with 27 cities this year.
The 1997 Defense authorization bill provides $42.6 million for the program, including $6.6 million to support Health and Human Services Department metropolitan medical strike teams which could provide emergency health-care response following a terrorist attack. The Clinton administration requested an additional $48 million for the Defense Department's support for the Defense Preparedness Program in 1998.
The Capitol Hill demonstration sent a useful message about the resources the military can bring to bear in the event of an attack on civilians, says Lt. Gen. Charles Wilhelm, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Atlantic. Wilhelm established CBIRF in April 1996, under orders from Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak, who believed there was a need for a military unit dedicated to quick response to the growing chemical and biological terrorism threat.
"It's desirable to demonstrate to our own leaders and perhaps to others that we do in fact have this capability," Wilhelm says.
The unit has no direct counter-terrorism role, but instead is trained to provide an emergency response, decontaminate victims and establish a medical triage system. The unit also can quickly detect some chemical and biological agents, secure the area and help preserve the crime scene for law enforcement officials.
"Everybody wants to catch the fish but nobody wants to clean them," says Corbett, referring to the glamour of catching terrorists compared to dealing with the results of their acts. "We at CBIRF clean fish."
CBIRF is only one weapon in the Pentagon's growing arsenal to combat chemical and biological terrorism. The Pentagon is establishing a Chem-Bio Quick Response Force, which includes CBIRF, several Army research and tactical units, and the military's chemical depots.
Lt. Col. Timothy Madere commands the Army's Technical Escort Unit, based at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. The unit is expert at handling, dismantling and disposing of chemical and biological weapons. At a time when many units are facing cuts, the 152-member unit will grow to 180 positions to better handle their burgeoning mission list.
"We're very busy," Madere says. Last year, technical escort teams responded to hundreds of calls for assistance. The calls were for a range of things: A soldier digging a fox hole at Fort Polk, La., unearths a long-buried chemical weapon. Toxic gas released in a fire at a pesticide plant in Arkansas threatens to contaminate the environment and harm firefighters. A cache of biological bomblets is discovered buried at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Contractors working in Washington and New Jersey discover buried munitions in residential areas.
In each case, members of the Technical Escort Unit were dispatched to the scene within hours, sometimes minutes. Members are specially trained to handle a multitude of hazardous materials and operate sophisticated detection and monitoring equipment.
"My people do dangerous work," Madere says. "It's not pleasant or pretty."
While most of the calls for assistance are for accidents or to rectify the hazardous weapons disposal practices of the past, terrorism looms large. In March, New York City police arrested amateur chemist Lester Deily for reckless endangerment following a three-hour standoff after they were called to his home after receiving reports of hazardous material in his front yard. After the arrest, city officials called in members of the Technical Escort Unit when they discovered a canister labeled "Biological Hazard/Sarin Gas" in Deily's home, along with 200 gallons of jet fuel and other explosive material, scientific equipment and generators. The Army team removed the canister back to Aberdeen where they tested it for the gas. The canister proved empty, but the possibility that it contained the highly lethal nerve agent was real.
The possibility of biological or chemical attack is a growing a concern at the Pentagon. In the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the department's major review of military strategy and plans released in May, Defense planners recommended the department allocate $1 billion in new funding for defense against chemical and biological weapons.
The request for more funding for chemical and biological defense was music to the ears of Army Brig. Gen. John Doesburg, the Defense Department's joint program manager for biological defense.
"It's an enviable position to be in," he says. Extra money would likely go toward buying more protective suits, staging advanced technology demonstrations for protecting ports and airfields, and improving detection and response capabilities, he says.
In some respects, biological weapons pose a more serious threat than chemical weapons, Defense officials say. They are cheaper to make, far more deadly and harder to detect. Biological agents are odorless and colorless and symptoms may not develop until hours after an attack, during which time contamination may continue to spread.
Federal officials estimate that a small plane properly equipped could disperse enough anthrax to kill millions of people in a large metropolitan area. The invisible, odorless agent would not likely be detected until people began dying, hours later. By then, it would probably be too late to save those people infected but still living.
"Biological terrorism provides [paramilitary groups and terrorists] a means to make their point and to do it very dramatically," Doesburg says. Under Doesburg, the military is developing more sophisticated biological agent detection equipment. The military currently uses what's known as the Biological Integrated Detection System, a large unit that fits on the back of a Humvee and is operated by two people sitting inside-a mechanism far too cumbersome to be useful in a terrorist attack. Next year, Doesburg says, the Defense Department will field an interim system to better protect ports and air bases overseas.
Recent incidents have infused the issue with a sense of urgency. They include the sarin attack in Tokyo, Iraq's development of biological weapons discovered following the Persian Gulf War, and other less publicized incidents of rogue chemists tied to right-wing paramilitary groups obtaining biological agents.
"All of these things heighten the awareness of the vulnerability we have here in the United States-a very open society-to someone who wants to use this type of weapon," Doesburg says.
Forty miles north of Washington, scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., don't need to read about the hazards of biological agents to understand the urgency. They work with the deadly agents every day at the institute-the only place in the United States where research is conducted in countering the use of biological agents as weapons.
"We are the only organization, not just in DoD, but in this country, that is focused on developing drugs and vaccines for these kinds of agents," says Col. David Franz, commander of the institute. The institute conducts research to develop strategies, products, information, procedures and training programs to medically defend against biological warfare threats.
Despite the institute's unique capability and mission, however, Franz expects he will have to further cut his staff of 430, already cut by one-third since 1991 when more than 600 civilian and military employees were assigned to the institute. While the QDR recommended more funding for chemical and biological defense, it also recommended major cuts to Defense infrastructure. As a research and development function of the medical community, the institute with its $20 million budget (down from $30 million in 1991) will be a prime target, Franz says. Such cuts could prove critical to efforts to defend against a biological attack.
While its staff and budget are shrinking, the institute's mission continues to grow. Institute staff routinely provide expert advice and assistance in handling biological agents to other federal agencies. During a biological attack, their contribution would be invaluable. "An expert who understands physical and biological characteristics of the agents and dissemination systems, even making recommendations via telephone, can make an enormous difference," Franz says. Because institute scientists study and handle biological agents on a daily basis, they are uniquely qualified to recommend appropriate management and response to a biological attack. Currently, institute employees are preparing training materials to be distributed to emergency workers through the Domestic Preparedness Program.
"While, public safety must be No. 1, expert evaluation of the real threat and a perfectly adequate, but measured response can snatch from the terrorist what he/she wants most: front page and live coverage," Franz says.
Battlefield threats are easier to defend against than terrorism, Franz says. During war, soldiers may be vaccinated against likely biological agents or, if vaccines are not available, they may at least be trained and prepared with medical antidotes should they become infected.
"Terrorism is such a tough problem," Franz says. "The opportunity to prepare for a specific terrorist incident will be
extremely rare-much like preparing for an emerging disease outbreak. Unless we happen to have excellent intelligence,
we can only be prepared to respond after the fact."
While the physical danger of biological weapons is real, the psychological danger may be just as debilitating.
During the Persian Gulf War, Iraq's chemical and biological weapons capability was widely discussed in the press and assumed to be extensive. Between January 18 and February 28, 1991, Iraq sent 39 Scud missiles into Israel. While there were only two deaths associated with the missile attacks, more than 1,000 people were medically treated. More than half were treated for anxiety and 230 were hospitalized for overdosing on atropine, taken as a result of the attacks, Franz wrote in a pamphlet titled "Defense Against Toxin Weapons." If even one of the warheads contained a biological agent which killed or sickened a few people, the terror effect would have been even greater," he wrote.
While Iraq did in fact have a biological capability-they had produced anthrax and botulinim (10,000 times more potent than sarin) and were capable of disseminating them from the air-weather and battlefield conditions (the coalition forces maintained control of the air) rendered the weapons militarily ineffective.
"If everything had worked out just right for [the Iraqis] they could have created mass casualties. But much of what they did could have had enormous psychological affect," Franz says. "They could have almost shut us down. Maybe not killed thousands, but they could have shut us down as an effective force by the fear factor and the panic. Even if they only made a few people sick it would have been very effective," he says.
Franz downplays the Iraqi threat because he's seen what the Russians are capable of: "It makes Iraq look like a Sunday School picnic. [The Russians] have just enormous capability and they worked for years and years to develop that capability."
At the height of the Cold War, in 1972, the United States and the Soviet Union pledged to end their development of biological weapons with the signing of the Biological Weapons Convention. The United States then ended its biological weapons program, destroying all weapons and continuing research only into the medical defense against and detection of biological weapons.
But in 1979, U.S. intelligence officials grew suspicious of Soviet intentions when dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people mysteriously died in Sverdlovsk, a city in the Ural Mountains. The Soviets attributed the deaths to food poisoning, but U.S. officials suspected an accidental release of a biological weapon.
U.S. fears were confirmed in 1992, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged the Soviets had continued their program on a large scale. Yeltsin then signed the Trilateral Joint Statement on Biological Weapons with the United States and Britain to limit proliferation. The 1979 deaths in Sverdlovsk were in fact caused by the inadvertent release of anthrax from a nearby biological weapons facility. The wind carried the anthrax spores 40 kilometers, killing dozens of people and livestock. Officials at the facility apparently weren't aware of the accidental release until people began to die unexpectedly.
Franz was a member of the first two teams to visit Russia and tour some non-military biological facilities-military facilities remain closed to U.S. inspectors.
"The Russians have developed and tested [an effective] program," Franz says. "A lot of that is still classified, but they certainly did their homework and they worked on a lot of different agents and a lot of different delivery systems and are capable of producing large quantities of biological weapons."
While the break up of the Soviet Union eased the threat of conventional warfare, it has only exacerbated the threat of biological terrorism, Franz says. "We're concerned about what happened to all those scientists. They had enormous facilities and thousands of people working on these issues. And they're broke now."
The U.S. government is working with Russia and former Soviet states to channel scientific efforts into non-military research and development. Nonetheless, there is a fear some of those scientists may sell their skills and expertise to rogue nations and sponsors of terrorism.
"I believe in order to make an effective terrorist weapon that will wipe out half of a city, you will need state sponsorship," Franz says. "You're not going to make [such an agent] in your bathtub in Rockville."
"That's the good news. The bad news is, with the break up of the Soviet Union, that capability is out there, and there are people who are interested in obtaining it."
Marines assist local emergency response workers in the Washington drill, rushing stretchers to "sick" victims.
DoD will work with emergency personnel in 27 cities this year to assess vulnerability to terrorist attack. Workers in 120 cities will be trained to cope with such attacks.