1. Archive

U.S. plans biological terrorism responses

Published Sep. 13, 2005

On a bright spring day last month, 40 officials from more than a dozen federal agencies met secretly near the White House to play out what would happen if terrorists attacked the United States with a devastating new type of germ weapon, government officials say.

The results were not encouraging.

Under the scenario, terrorists spread a virus along the U.S.-Mexico border, primarily in California and the Southwest. After doctors diagnosed the epidemic as smallpox, the dreaded killer once thought to have been eradicated, vaccines were rushed in to immunize the population. But what appeared to have been smallpox turned out to be a hybrid whose hidden side caused profuse bleeding and a high fever for which there was no cure.

As the scenario unfolded, officials playing the role of state and local officials were quickly overwhelmed by a panicked population, thousands of whom were falling ill and dying. Discovering huge gaps in logistics, legal authority and medical care, they began quarreling among themselves and with Washington over how to stem the epidemic. In truth, no one was in charge.

The outcome of the exercise surprised some participants but illustrated what others had long suspected: The United States, despite huge investments of time, money and effort in recent years, still is unprepared to respond to biological terror weapons.

The secret exercise, officials said, also underscored the need for a sweeping plan that President Clinton is expected to approve this week. The goal of the two new "presidential decision directives," known as PDD-62 and PDD-63, is to enhance the country's ability to prevent chemical, biological or cyber-weapon attacks, and if deterrence fails, to respond more effectively.

Clinton's interest, especially in germ warfare, has been deepened by books, aides said. Clinton was so alarmed by one _ a novel by Richard Preston titled The Cobra Event, which portrays a lone terrorist's attack on New York City with a genetically engineered virus _ that he instructed intelligence experts to evaluate its credibility. Experts tend to disagree on the plausibility of such high-technology threats. But most agree that the danger will grow and that such an attack, if successful, could be catastrophic.

Administration officials said the president had become increasingly worried by the idea of germ-wielding terrorists who might cripple the nation by sowing deadly epidemics.

Clinton's personal interest, officials said, has become a powerful force behind a series of secret federal meetings and directives meant to bolster the nation's anti-terrorism work. Clinton also has asked the National Security Council if more money is needed in this year's budget for anti-terrorism efforts.

During Clinton's presidency, terrorism has emerged as one of the world's thorniest security threats. In February 1993, a month after he took office, a terrorist bomb exploded under the World Trade Center in New York, killing six people and injuring 1,000.

In March 1995, a Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, staged a stunning chemical attack on the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 and injuring 5,000. While the group used a lethal nerve gas, it turned out that it also had worked hard to make biological weapons, a realization that a senior administration official characterized as a "wake-up call."

Then, in April 1995, terrorists blew up the federal office building in Oklahoma City, killing 168.

Apprehension about germs grew later in 1995 as Iraq admitted it had built and hidden a large biological arsenal and was prepared to use it during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

On June 21, 1995, Clinton signed PDD-39, which stated that the United States had "no higher priority" than stopping terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. More than 40 agencies vied for a piece of the new federal pie, eager for some of the billions of dollars that Congress began appropriating for anti-terrorism programs.

The General Accounting Office, in a report in December, faulted the government for a serious lack of coordination in efforts to counter the terrorist threat. For instance, it said there was no mechanism to prevent huge duplication of effort in some areas and inaction in others.

Richard Falkenrath, executive director of Harvard's Center for Science and International Affairs and author of America's Achilles Heel, a new book on high-technology terrorism, also criticized the government's efforts.

"There is still no overarching federal blueprint for response," he said in an interview. "What you have now are mostly grassroots efforts springing up in a wide range of agencies."

The government concedes at least some of its failings. According to a draft of an interagency study, government counterterrorism programs suffer from a lack of intelligence-sharing and a lack of information about what terrorists or groups may be plotting, the Washington Post reported Friday.

Last month's secret exercise, known as a "table top," the civilian version of a military war game, used a genetically engineered virus: a mix of the smallpox and Marburg viruses.

Dr. William Haseltine, a leading expert on genetic engineering whom the White House asked to review the scenario, said in an interview that it was realistic. "You could make such a virus today," he said. "Any trained molecular virologist with a really good lab can do it."

But Dr. John Huggins, head of viral therapies at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., disagreed. "Most of us think it's many years away," he said, adding, though, that using the conjectural hybrid in a worst-case federal exercise made sense.

Administration officials said the scenario was purposely intended to inflict a substantial disaster so as to stress the system and reveal weakness in emergency preparedness.

Among the shortcomings, officials said, were that in such emergencies hospitals would quickly exhaust supplies of antibiotics and vaccine. One participant said it was very hard "to get trained, immunized medical staff into an infected area."

Federal quarantine laws turned out to be too antiquated to deal with the crisis, and almost no state had serious plans for taking care of the people it had isolated.

What began as a domestic disaster rapidly spiraled into an international crisis as the epidemic threatened to spread into Mexico.

Clinton's deepening interest in such potential threats, aides said, led him to request a briefing by a panel of experts this month on the genetic engineering of biological weapons and related issues.

For 90 minutes April 10, he questioned seven scientists and Cabinet members about what a White House statement described as "opportunities and the national security challenges posed by genetic engineering and biotechnology."

"Although he had been up most of the previous night helping settle the Irish crisis, he was very engaged and asked probing questions," said Frank Young, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, who campaigned for better emergency preparedness when in government and who moderated the panel.

Other participants said Clinton had asked the experts for written advice on how to detect, deter and address the consequences of a biological attack.

Young, now a pastor and executive director of the Reformed Theological Seminary, Metro Washington, declined to discuss the panel's recommendations, which are expected to be submitted this week. But those familiar with the report said the panel had urged Clinton, among other things, to stockpile and develop the capacity to make antidotes, vaccines and antibiotics rapidly, adopt a system to verify that states are observing the 1972 treaty banning biological weapons, boost federal funds for drug and medical research, strengthen the public-health sector and streamline the government system for detecting and managing biological crises.

On Wednesday, senior officials told a joint Senate hearing that the administration may create a national stockpile of vaccines, antibiotics and antidotes to save lives in the event of a chemical or biological attack by terrorists.

The proposal that Clinton is poised to endorse had provoked a bitter fight within the administration, with the departments of Defense and Justice opposing a key provision that critics feared would have created a terrorism czar within the White House. Instead, the directives now create a "national coordinator" with a limited staff and no direct budget authority, but wide powers to initiate action, secure aid and iron out government disputes.

The job is expected to go to Richard Clarke, now Clinton's special assistant for global affairs. His new role will be to strengthen efforts to foil terrorists intent on killing Americans or destroying the nation's "critical infrastructure": the private and public institutions that provide power, money, water, transportation, communications and health services.