Officials fear war abroad will breed terror at home

State and local homeland security officials see war with Iraq as intensifying the terror threat at home, and say they lack the resources to be fully prepared.

As war with Iraq grows ever more likely, Americans might need to get used to having everyday life tinged with a level of danger that is, quite literally, off the chart-off the federal government's color-coded terrorism threat advisory scale, that is.

Call the unofficial, nerve-racking threat level "burnt orange."

That in-between shade symbolizes that the nation is in greater peril than the highest official threat level invoked so far, "heightened-alert orange," would suggest. It also symbolizes that, in the absence of government knowledge of a very specific threat, the nation won't escalate to the highest threat level, red. "Burnt orange" also represents a state of mind. For the public, it reflects higher anxiety, even by post-9/11 standards. And for the White House, burnt orange is perhaps the color of denial.

After a week of duct-tape guidance, ominous reports, and an audiotape in which Qaeda chieftain Osama bin Laden publicly allied his terror network with Iraq, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge steadfastly maintained that going to war with Iraq would not put the nation in graver danger. "Al Qaeda will operate when they deem themselves ready to move," he told reporters on February 14. "They didn't need us to be engaged militarily in another part of the world on September 11." Then, on February 27, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and Ridge lowered the official threat level to yellow, or "elevated."

Well, tell that to homeland security chiefs in New York City, where law enforcement officials have been working for weeks on contingency plans for wartime. Or, tell it to the Richmond, Va., chapter of the Red Cross. With the prospect of war in Iraq looming large, Richmond Red Cross members spent a recent meeting mapping out plans for coping with possible evacuations of Washington, D.C., or Norfolk, Va., one of the Navy's biggest ports. The Richmond Red Cross estimates that, by relying on school gymnasiums and homeless shelters, the city could absorb 35,000 evacuees.

"Most states are very concerned," says Maj. Gen. Tim Lowenberg, Washington state's homeland security adviser. "That concern translates into substantially increased planning and preparation, on the assumption that [in wartime] the threat level will increase beyond what it is now."

What terror dangers do state and local authorities most worry would jump higher because of war with Iraq? Conventional explosives, perhaps triggered by suicide bombers, top their lists, according to an informal survey by National Journal. That worry is followed by bioterrorism; opportunistic, homegrown terrorism; the extra vulnerability created by the loss of security forces who have been called to military duty overseas; and too little state and local money to adequately respond to an actual terror attack.

As recently as October, the Hart-Rudman Commission, which had warned of the nation's vulnerability to terrorism seven months before 9/11, declared, "America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil."

Gary Hart, the commission's co-chairman and a former Democratic senator from Colorado, warns: "We should not go to war with Iraq until the country is better prepared to respond" to an attack at home. "We are not prepared to respond. It's a two-front war, and [President Bush] is only fighting it on one front.... We are kicking open a hornet's nest."

The Bush White House has gotten itself into a complicated homeland security bind. It wants to bolster public support for war with Iraq by persuading the nation that there is a strong link between Saddam Hussein's regime and the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks. It argues that forcing a regime change in Iraq would eliminate a major terror threat. Yet the administration would risk undermining public support for war with Iraq if it stated what many outside observers have concluded-that hitting Iraq would significantly increase the likelihood that America will itself be hit again soon.

"There is substantial political risk with the course they've undertaken," said Stephen E. Flynn, a homeland security analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations. "They leave themselves exposed to the notion that you've generated the very threat you're supposed to be protecting us from."

Despite what recent news reports have implied, the federal government is still mum on a connection between the war and threats at home. The FBI last week sent state and local law enforcement officials a classified warning that "lone extremists ... represent an ongoing terrorist threat in the United States." The bulletin said nothing about Iraq or the prospect of war, according to recipients. "I didn't think it was anything new," said Joe Huden, a Washington state homeland security official.

For obvious strategic reasons, the administration doesn't want to share its timetable for going to war. But by being tight-lipped, the Bush team makes it especially difficult for state and local officials to prepare for whatever heightened risks war could bring.

On the other hand, officials beyond the Beltway don't need Uncle Sam to tell them that this is a particularly dangerous time. Sitting just 45 miles outside Washington, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley believes war would "absolutely" increase the risk of a terror attack on his city. "I think for any mayor to think otherwise would be irresponsible," he says. In Indianapolis, Clifford Ong, who has been overseeing Indiana's homeland security efforts since October 2001, contends, "It would be naive to think otherwise."

The worries of state and local homeland security officials are echoed on Capitol Hill. "The potential war in Iraq may be an opportunity for terrorist groups like Al Qaeda to strike at a time when they think the nation's attention is diverted," said Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, whose panel oversees the Department of Homeland Security.

Brian Jenkins, a terrorism analyst with Rand for 31 years, ticks off several reasons to expect that war would intensify the threat of terrorism on U.S. soil. He starts by recalling that worldwide terrorist activity went up in 1991, when the United States fought Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. And with the United States now winding up to deliver what he calls one of "the most telegraphed military punches in history," terrorists have been given ample time to prepare for retaliation.

Meanwhile, anti-war activists could choose to make a statement through anti-American violence. And Al Qaeda is very practiced at playing on Muslim fears that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would be a prelude to a crusade against Islam.

A U.S. attack on Iraq could also be a boon to Al Qaeda's recruitment efforts, worries Frank Hoffman, a former top aide to the Hart-Rudman Commission. And such U.S. aggression, he said, could push other radical groups over the brink into terrorism on American soil. Iraqi sympathizers might seek to launch terrorist attacks in the United States to try to undermine American support for the war. With that possibility in mind, the FBI has been attempting to locate and interview 50,000 Iraqi immigrants, 3,000 of them illegal.

Despite the rampant fear among outside analysts and officials that war with Iraq equals more danger for American civilians, the new Department of Homeland Security hasn't even mentioned the possibility of war to state homeland security officials. Asked whether Homeland Security has wartime contingency plans, spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said his department prefers to look at "the whole picture" of potential terror threats rather than to single out one, even one as big as a war with a Middle Eastern country.

Ranking the Dangers

In the absence of federal guidance, state and local homeland security officials are on their own in trying to prepare for and avert the once-unthinkable by calculating which terror threats to take most seriously in time of war. Wary of tipping off terrorists to specific vulnerabilities, these officials hesitate to go into great detail about their particular worries, such as, say, a nearby nuclear reactor or a high-profile corporate target. However, notably missing from their top concerns are nuclear warheads, radioactive "dirty bombs" powered by conventional explosives, and chemical weapons. What they see as bigger threats are conventional explosives, bioterrorism, and domestic terrorism. The state and local leaders also worry that the Pentagon's call-up of reservists has depleted the ranks of first responders-emergency personnel trained to react to crises-and that many of the remaining personnel are not adequately trained or equipped, because state and local governments are strapped for cash.

Conventional explosives: Easiest to acquire and detonate, conventional explosives are the favorite weapon of terrorists worldwide. All of the state and local officials surveyed listed such arms as their top wartime worry. And ordinary bombs or guns have been the weapon of choice in every notable terror attack since 9/11, from Bali to Los Angeles International Airport.

Suicide bombers could quickly take a huge psychological toll on the American public by making ordinary trips to shopping malls or restaurants feel like combat duty. "It would be a shock level we haven't yet experienced," Hoffman predicts. "From a terrorist's perspective, if they did it in a crowded place where they would get some good pictures, it would be logistically and tactically simple, and it would be very effective."

Suicide bombers are difficult-but not always impossible-to stop. Israel has had significant success by training police officers to watch for telltale behaviors. In this country, employees at Boston's Logan Airport are trained to spot aberrant behavior. And Miami officials are making it a priority to keep tabs on rock quarries and other enterprises that keep explosives on hand.

Bioterrorism: The weapons of bioterrorism are far more difficult to obtain and to use than ordinary explosives. However, they remain high on officials' worry list because, as of 2001, Saddam admitted having 2,200 gallons of anthrax. Iraq might also have stockpiles of smallpox. The consequences of a large-scale attack with a biological agent "could be devastating, and [the Iraqis] have got it," notes Col. Tim Daniel, Missouri's director of homeland security. Daniel worries that Saddam could hand off bioweapons to a willing third party and that early-detection technology isn't sophisticated enough to avert enormous casualties.

"Perhaps the most serious threat we face is a bioweapon attack," Sen. Collins remarked on her way back from a briefing on Vice President Dick Cheney's new Project BioShield, which directs the Food and Drug Administration to approve and stockpile vaccines against bioterrorism agents.

A few cities, including New York and Baltimore, have made strides toward monitoring changes in public health reports that could signal a bioterror attack. New York keeps tabs on sales of over-the-counter drugs. A spike in purchases of Pepto-Bismol, for example, might prompt public health officials to contact local doctors and hospitals to investigate whether something unusual is going on. The Environmental Protection Agency has begun monitoring the air in selected locations around the country to check for signs of a biological attack. And biosurveillance equipment would be near the top of many local emergency officials' shopping lists, they say, if only they could afford it.

Homegrown terrorism: The lethal anthrax attacks that disrupted Congress and the U.S. mail soon after 9/11 are widely thought to be the work of a still-unknown American eager to jolt an already-frightened nation. Homegrown terrorists might try to similarly exploit public apprehension about war with Iraq. Chuck Lanza, director of the Office of Emergency Management for Miami-Dade County, said he suspects the biggest increase will be in hoaxes-not in actual attacks-but that one or more crazies might actually carry out an attack, using anything from germs to a truck bomb to a sniper rifle.

Depleted resources: JoAnne Moreau's biggest wartime worry is that she won't have enough emergency workers to summon. "There will be manpower issues. A lot of our people are in the Reserve forces," said Moreau, director of emergency preparedness for Baton Rouge, La. "They're being called up." Her complaint is echoed by her counterparts all across the country.

About 75 percent of fire departments include reservists, and an estimated 44 percent of law enforcement agencies have already lost employees to call-ups. Col. Alan Smith, the ombudsman for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, says that smaller first-responder agencies could lose 30 percent of their people to the Reserves. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard has sent one-fourth of its patrol-boat fleet from the mid-Atlantic and New England to the Gulf. "We're raising the threat of a likely attack. And we're taking the resources that are likely to be called upon at home and shipping them over to a war zone," observes Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations. "There's a trade-off conversation that needs to happen, that isn't happening."

Empty coffers: Tight on money, state and local homeland officials worry that they are having to skimp too much on preparedness. And Washington state's Lowenberg expects already-weak links to be further strained if the United States goes to war. Among the weaknesses he sees are communication systems that don't allow police officers, firefighters, and emergency personnel to talk with each other; a shortage of protective gear for chemical or biological attacks; and the lack of equipment and procedures to detect bioterror agents. In Lowenberg's view, "There's no way to address those problems, except through federal funding."

What happened in Tamaroa, a small town in southern Illinois, in early February was telling: A train loaded with toxic chemicals derailed, forcing a thousand residents to evacuate their homes. The derailment was an accident-but just the sort of disaster that terrorists could easily replicate in dozens of places nationwide.

Tamaroa's volunteer firefighters responded first, followed by the county sheriff, and then the state police. "None of those people has the proper protective equipment," said Michael Chamness, director of Illinois's emergency management agency. The nearest hazardous-materials team was 30 miles away.

Illinois had hoped to buy $25 million worth of protective gear for agencies statewide; the state expected to receive $100 million in homeland security grants from the federal government. But the final 2003 appropriations bill that Congress passed in February-nearly halfway through the fiscal year-cut Illinois's $100 million by about two-thirds.

Preparing the Home Front

While the Pentagon focuses on positioning troops near Iraq, state and local officials on the front lines of the war on terrorism are hurriedly bracing for the heightened domestic dangers they expect to accompany an actual U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Washington state has been ramping up for wartime security for months. "It's not something you can do at the last minute," Lowenberg said. The state is hardening key potential targets, filling in for called-up reservists, and mapping out evacuation plans. In New York City, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly has asked each of his divisions to assess how their responsibilities should change in the event of war. And in Virginia, "We are doing a government-wide planning activity," said George Foresman, a homeland security specialist in the governor's office. "Many of our local governments are also doing this as well."

Foresman said he doesn't assume the federal government will automatically raise the threat level if war breaks out, but he adds, "We're not completely dependent on the federal family to guide our threat level in Virginia."

Likewise, in Missouri, Daniel doesn't expect the federal threat level to rise all the way to red if the United States goes to war. But, he said, "without going to Code Red, we need to be very concerned and go ahead and increase security for the first 48 to 72 hours and then make judgments on how the war is going and the information from the intelligence agencies." That translates into visibly tightening security at what the state considers terrorists' top potential targets and, perhaps, setting up traffic checkpoints.

Yet, in Indiana, Ong wonders what more his state can do to get ready for wartime dangers. Absent a specific threat, "I don't know that I necessarily would change anything," he said.

In many places, the level of precautions being taken at any given time is geared to the federal government's five-color threat-assessment chart. Illinois and Washington state have spelled out exactly what a host of local agencies are expected to do, depending on whether the nation is on, say, a yellow alert or an orange one. Many other states, as well as Washington, D.C., are still in the process of translating the colors of the federal alert into precise local responses. At least one locale, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area of North Carolina, has adopted the federal government's color scheme but also uses its own judgment in determining how serious the terror threat is at any given time. While the federal level was orange, Winters Mabry, director of the homeland security office for Mecklenburg County, said, "We are currently staying at yellow-but I would say a strengthened yellow."

Yet whether they consider their jurisdictions at Code Orange, Code Yellow, or on the brink of Code Red, many state and local officials are doing essentially the same things. They've gone through the painful process of figuring out their jurisdiction's most-likely terror targets and then put them under the closest watch they can afford. In Florida, that means paying special attention to protecting its Jewish population. In Illinois, that means tightly guarding its 11 nuclear reactors. And in Washington, D.C., it means trying to safeguard national landmarks.

Baltimore Mayor O'Malley said his police department "is putting additional eyes on more places in the city than they would have. We've done a vulnerability assessment of our critical infrastructure. And those things now have officers either on them or watching them." He added, "This is something we're trying to struggle to do in a flexible way, knowing we could be [on alert] for a long time."

One recurring theme among state and local officials is the importance of making security visible: It's the domestic version of deterrence. Studies of past Qaeda operations indicate that "they spend a lot of time on reconnaissance," scoping out potential targets, noted Missouri's Daniel. "If they see police doing a roadblock in some place they've never seen before, it's very disruptive to their plans."

Some jurisdictions want their security efforts to be variable as well as visible: a roadblock here one day, a cop on patrol over there the next-all intended to make terrorist attacks more difficult to plan or carry out.

With the country seemingly headed toward war, most states have beefed up the staffing at their emergency response centers to give themselves a head start if an attack does come. Many specialized response teams-ones for hazardous materials, urban search-and-rescue, or general disasters, for example-are now on standby. These efforts amount to "shortening the leash a bit," said Glen Woodbury, director of emergency management for Washington state and president of the National Emergency Management Association.

Many of these back-office measures haven't cost much-yet. "The people that we activate are not people who get paid overtime," said Illinois's Chamness.

But a heightened level of alertness-especially with extra cops on the beat and on overtime-could become crushingly expensive. Already, many agencies are borrowing from tomorrow to pay for today. "It's not quite painful yet, but it could get painful, depending on how long we're at this stage," said Washington state's Woodbury.

The problem with stopgap measures, of course, is that the short term eats the long term's lunch. And a war with Iraq would likely have a voracious security appetite on the home front. Every hour spent scrambling on today's problem is another hour not spent planning for tomorrow's. Every cop watching a nuclear power plant, every firefighter responding to a bomb threat, every emergency manager pulling extra shifts is another person and another dollar unavailable for other, more-traditional priorities.

As fears of suicide bombings and bioterrorism climb along with expectations of war, many state and local officials fault the federal government for not doing more to help them cope. "You cannot fund an adequate level of homeland security on local property taxes and the proceeds of firehouse bingo," fumed Mayor O'Malley. "That's why we have a clause in the Constitution about providing for the common defense. It's the fundamental reason we have a union."

Already such grumbling has reached Washington, as has the suggestion that any new legislation to jack up military spending should include homeland security aid for states and localities. As Washington state's Lowenberg sees it, "We need to recognize that a substantial part of the field of engagement won't just be in the Middle East." That, at least, is the nearly universal fear among the state and local officials charged with protecting the home front.