The day after the ValuJet DC-9 crashed in the Florida Everglades in May, 1996, the phone rang in my midtown Manhattan office.
"Who is Adam Bryant of the New York fucking Times?" rasped my caller, a veteran FBI agent in Miami. "This Bryant guy calls me thinking I'm gonna tell him something 'cause he's with the fucking New York Times. What kinda arrogance is that? He didn't give a fuck about me last week before the plane went down in the swamp."
Try to look past the colorful language of the federal agent--a confidential source from my days as a Business Week staff writer--and listen carefully to his message. We in the media--and in politics, law enforcement, and pretty much everywhere else today--tend to pay attention to potential disasters only after they happen.
Even today, in the wake of the worst incident of terrorism on U.S. soil, most commentators and analysts are focusing on yesterday's terrorism problems, rather than tomorrow's. "About the only thing you can be sure of going forward is that aviation travel will be safe," reports Lehman Brothers' Mark Melcher, a Washington, D.C.-based political analyst who has written widely in recent years on the very real dangers of terrorism. "Congress will hold hearings on airport safety, and the terrorists will have a good laugh," explains Melcher. "The terrorists have already moved on to other targets--which virtually nobody is thinking about today--while we're holding a ridiculous national debate on curbside check-in."
As a primer for digesting the news in the wake of last Tuesday's suicide bombings, here are eight thoughts worth pondering:
* Airplanes and airports are safe. The good news is that the problem in the skies is being fixed. The bad news is that much of the rest of country is vulnerable. According to several anti-terrorism experts, last Tuesday's events took five-plus years to plan. Intelligence analysts assume that the next terrorist attacks are already three to four years into the planning stages. These future attacks are being developed under the assumption that U.S. security efforts will focus on airports and airplanes; hence, the next wave of terror will almost certainly hit elsewhere.
* The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has known for years that domestic airport security is a standing joke, yet it has done little to fix the problem. The U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General--the watchdog agency that keeps an eye on the FAA--has prepared detailed reports spelling out the airport security problems that have been all over the news of late. (For details, go to www.oig.dot.gov, then hit aviation (FAA) security.) Read the reports and weep.
Start with the November 18, 1999 study, which had this to say: "During our testing, we successfully penetrated secure areas by: piggybacking [following] employees through doors; riding unguarded elevators; walking through concourse doors, gates, and jet bridges; walking through cargo facilities unchallenged; and driving through unmanned vehicle gates. After penetrating secure areas, we boarded a substantial number of aircraft operated by U.S. and foreign air carriers. In some instances, we were seated and ready for departure at the time we concluded our tests."
* The greatest terrorist threats today are biological agents. Biological agents are easily accessible, almost impossible to detect, and extremely deadly. Listen to the words of terrorism expert Peter Probst, from a mid-1990s speech: "Only a few grams of pulmonary anthrax, which has something on the order of a 95 percent lethality rate, could take out a major government complex. Similarly, a vial of such an agent dropped from the Senate gallery could take out much of this country's leadership."
Probst, an ex-CIA employee who has spent more than two decades developing anti-terrorism plans for the U.S. Department of Defense and others, says that "the terrorist weapon of the future could, at first glance, appear to be an ordinary light bulb, which, in turn, is a preferred covert delivery method for biological agents. Terrorists could take several such devices filled with pulmonary anthrax and toss them onto the tracks of the Washington Metro. The bulbs would shatter, and lethal spores would be carried throughout the system by the convection currents of passing trains. They would cling to the clothing and shoes or the subway commuters who would track it into their homes and offices. Thousands would aspirate the deadly spores. Thousands would die." Meanwhile, we prattle on about curbside check-in.
* The U.S. is extremely vulnerable in the event of germ warfare. According to Dr. Ken Alibek, the first deputy chief of the secret Soviet germ warfare program from 1988 to 1992, nations like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, and Yemen have lured away and hired Soviet scientists who are knowledgeable in biological weapons. Alibek, who defected to the U.S. in 1992 and has briefed U.S. intelligence and medical officials about the threat of biological weapons, says it's "highly probable" that terrorists already have obtained Soviet chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. And the things they have procured are awful in their magnitude. According to Alibek, the Soviet Union has developed strains of anthrax, plague, and other infectious and deadly diseases--including tularemia and glanders--that can't be treated with antibiotics.