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.
* Toxins can be easily manufactured. In the mid-1990s, a forward-thinking federal contractor got nervous about the ease with which terrorists could obtain deadly toxins. The contractor set up a test by posting, in an online chat room, the formula for making sarin, a deadly biological agent. "The formula was genuine, except for some subtle omissions which would render the result harmless," Probst explains. Less than an hour later, he reports, "some 30 different messages were posted giving the correct formulation and pointing out the errors in the consultant's work."
* Numerous experts were predicting an event similar to the suicide bombings. But you won't hear that from the Pentagon. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1996, another terrorism expert, Steve Emerson, predicted last Tuesday's events with deadly accuracy. "The United States will, in my opinion, increasingly serve as a lightning rod for international terrorists who perceive the U.S. as an enemy that must be destroyed because of its inherent evil nature," Emerson testified. He also told the senators that "terrorists will attempt to carry out attacks that will generate mass casualties and fatalities" and "will most likely target office buildings or arenas housing large civilian populations."
Owing in large measure to his views, Emerson has been branded a racist and an alarmist who relies on questionable sources and shoddy research techniques. Before the September 11 bombings, he was so hard up for cash that he was cold-calling would-be donors in an effort to keep open his anti-terrorism outfit, Investigative Project on Religious Extremism. But now, because of the bombings, Emerson is so much in demand that he's lucky to get two hours' sleep a night.
In the early 1990s, terrorism expert Probst co-authored an extraordinary Pentagon report, "Terror 2000: The Future Face of Terrorism," which outlined and predicted the events of last week with alarming accuracy, according to those who've obtained copies. Unfortunately, you can't read the report; the Pentagon never released it to the public. The Los Angles Times reported in 1998 that "even a sanitized version designed to promote public preparedness was axed." Why didn't the Defense Department release it? The report was considered "too alarmist and far-fetched" for average Americans to read, according to the Los Angeles Times. One wonders if the families of the dead Pentagon employees would see the report as far-fetched today.
* If you're in the market for germs, just place an order. White supremacist Larry Wayne Harris recently had some official-looking letterhead made, and then ordered three vials of bubonic plague from a Rockville, Maryland, laboratory. The plague samples were delivered by Federal Express. Interestingly, it's not illegal to possess bubonic plague. Harris was nonetheless caught by law-enforcement officials and convicted of mail fraud for ordering the samples with fake stationery. His sentence? Eighteen months' probation.
If you don't want to order the stuff already made, various recipes are easy to obtain. When the white supremacist group known as the Patriot's Council wanted to get the formula for recin, another deadly biological agent, it reportedly found what it needed in a Soldier of Fortune magazine advertisement. (A Soldier of Fortune spokesman, however, does not recall the incident and says the magazine tries to screen such ads before publication.)
* If you're wondering why the threat of terrorism hasn't taken a front seat in this country, consider these statistics: Tuesday's terrorists killed an estimated 5,000 people. Last year, drunk drivers killed 16,058 people on America's roads, heart disease killed an estimated 800,000 Americans, more than 235,000 died last year of cancers of the digestive system, and breast cancer claimed 193,000. Nobody is talking about putting U.S. marshals outside liquor stores and cigarette vending machines.
As the nation mourns, there is a natural tendency to want to figure out precisely what happened. Unfortunately, this often leads to fighting yesterday's war. Vanderbilt University political science professor Jim Ray, a specialist in international conflict, rightly points out that, as a nation, we'd be well served to focus on "less obvious" sources of potential trouble.
When I was at Business Week in the mid-1990s, I holed up for some weeks in a ramshackle, cockroach-infested hotel near Miami International Airport, gathering tidbits for an investigative story on growing numbers of counterfeit aircraft parts showing up on major U.S.-based airlines. While reporting the story, my days were spent with government snitches, undercover cops, aircraft mechanics, airplane parts brokers, and FBI agents including the uncouth G-man who wasn't enamored of Adam Bryant (who is, by the way, a first-rate reporter now working at Newsweek).
These aviation safety professionals shared a common mission: They were petrified that the enormous--and lucrative--trade in bogus aircraft parts was going to cause an airline disaster. They were frustrated that few people of note, in the media or elsewhere, would listen to their concerns because the disaster hadn't happened yet. They knew that because there had been no blood, there hadn't been a story.
In fact, I had a heck of a time getting Business Week to publish the cover story on bogus aircraft parts. Many of my risk-averse, career-conscious colleagues were simply scared to run an article on a potential problem, no matter how real. Nobody wanted to be branded an unthinking alarmist. Maybe this time, we'll learn.
Willy Stern is a staff writer at Nashville Scene, City Pages' sister paper published in Tennessee. His investigative reports on topics including aviation safety have won numerous national and international awards.
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