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Bioterrorism:  Thinking the Unthinkable

Had any Hollywood producer been handed a script of the events of Sept. 11, he would have dismissed it as beyond believability.  Yet a sequel may well be in the works, and though this first attack stretched the limits of credulity, the deadly potential of a second strike could dwarf the present death toll. 

Picture the scene:  On a windless night over the nation’s capital, a single pilot in a tiny plane disperses 200 pounds of anthrax spores.  Colorless, tasteless, odorless.  The next morning, millions in the metropolitan area notice cold-like symptoms.  Within days, most are dead – felled by an agonizing agent more lethal than an atom bomb.  In 1993, in a little-noted report, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) pictured just such a scene.  So may have Mohammed Atta, pilot of the flight that struck the Trade Center’s North Tower. 

Over the weekend, after learning that the terrorist had visited a south Florida crop-duster to inquire about his planes, the FBI asked the National Agricultural Aviation Association to ground all crop-dusting aircrafts.  Odds are Atta wasn’t worried about boll weevils.  The planes he looked at can carry 510 gallons of chemicals and release the spray while flying 110 miles per hour beneath radar detection.  And acquiring the agents would not have been nearly as complex as hijacking four flights.  “Potential biological warfare agents are readily available locally or internationally from natural sources or commercial suppliers,” the OTA reported.

Last year, CIA Director George Tenet testified before Congress that terrorists were exploring how “rapidly evolving and spreading technologies might enhance the lethality of their operations," and revealed that Osama bin Laden was actively trying to acquire chemical and biological agents. The Defense Department says, “Weapons inspectors discovered during the Gulf War that Saddam Hussein maintained an anthrax arsenal sufficient to kill every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth.”  Likewise, the former Soviet Union, which at the height of the Cold War employed 60,000 to develop biological weapons, has enough anthrax to depopulate the planet several times over.

Defectors from Al Qaeda claim that Bin Laden has tried to acquire viruses from Russia, botulinum toxin from the Czech Republic, and anthrax from North Korea.  Last week, government sources told the New York Times that satellite photos showed dead animals on ranges outside a bin Laden camp in Afghanistan, suggesting that experimentation could well be underway.  We do not know.  But we do know that we are not ready to fight on this front.  A week before the hijackings, Sen. Bill Frist called bioterrorism “a significant threat to our country” and said our bioweapons surveillance is "woefully inadequate."  No metal detector will find these microbes, no security check will stop them, and of the approximately 50 pathogens considered most likely threats, the U.S. has vaccines or treatments for just a dozen. 

On the morning four passenger planes became missiles, the stuff of sci-fi fantasy ceased to be fiction. Nothing is unimaginable any more.  Four years ago, professor Richard Price wrote a book entitled, The Chemical Weapons Taboo, suggesting that even terrorists shy away from using chemical and biological agents.  He hadn’t met bin Laden’s 19.  We have.  And we know them to be ruthless.  These weapons of mass murder have been developed, and they will be delivered by men without morals.  The question is whether or not America will be ready for their next line of attack.

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