http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101030224-423465,00.html By ROMESH RATNESAR Feb. 16, 2003 When top officials at the FBI arrived for work last week, they had reason to feel even more anxious than usual. Beginning each day before dawn, FBI Director Robert Mueller and his top aides huddled on the seventh floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, reviewing overnight intelligence reports gathered from human and electronic sources around the world. Taken together, the reports suggested what intelligence officials had suspected for weeks: al-Qaeda operatives, in the words of a senior U.S. official, "are in the execution phase of some of their operations." The intelligence sources couldn't pinpoint the kind of strikes in the works or the cells charged with executing them. But U.S. officials told Time that earlier this month Mueller and other top officials received credible intelligence that al-Qaeda had an attack - or multiple attacks - set to begin at some point last week, perhaps to coincide with the end of the hajj, the five-day Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Officials say the intelligence specifically mentioned that the likely targets were New York City and Washington. Even though the feared attacks failed to materialize, the anxieties didn't subside. Inside the FBI, fears of a devastating attack are as high as they've been in months, in part because of the possibility that "other tools are in play" - meaning biological and chemical weapons. A senior Administration official says that telephone calls and e-mails exchanged between several suspected terrorists and intercepted by the U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies pointed to a plot inside the U.S. using nerve gas, poisons or radiological devices. "It wasn't just chatter," says Republican Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "It was a pattern." Some of the plots are believed to be in the planning stages. A senior Administration official tells Time that domestic law-enforcement agencies are investigating a report that Islamic extremists in this country are trying to acquire parts to build an unmanned aerial vehicle (uav) abroad - the kind of machine that terrorism experts believe could be deployed to spray chemical agents over populated areas. The fear is that a uav assembled overseas could be used against U.S. assets there. Some alleged terrorist plans were very close to home. Counterterrorism officials say they received a phone tip that unnamed members of Congress could be the targets of assassination attempts. On Wednesday, U.S. Capitol Police chief Terry Gainer warned House members to be on alert for attempts on their lives. At a closed-door briefing Thursday a group of Senators grilled Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge about whether they should clear their families out of the capital in anticipation of an attack. Ridge counseled them against it, but when pressed by the Senators for the odds of an attack on U.S. targets at home or abroad in the next several weeks, Ridge, according to one source familiar with the meeting, put the probability at "50% or greater." Ridge's spokesman denies that the Secretary gave that figure. Still, a congressional source says the White House is "definitely worried. They're not jacking this up for effect." In private, White House officials sounded almost resigned to the inevitability of catastrophe. "All we can do," Vice President Dick Cheney told a gathering of top Administration officials to discuss bioterrorism, "is ask ourselves, Have we done everything we can to prevent an attack? I want to be able to look all of you in the eye and (have you) tell me that we have done all that we can." So have we? While the Administration demonstrated again last week its determination to remind Americans of the dangers of terrorism, it has done far less to prepare the country for actually defending against it. While the White House's suggestion that Americans defend themselves against chemical or biological attacks with duct tape and plastic sheeting was dismissed by many for its naivete, it laid bare a sobering truth: the U.S. still doesn't have a credible and comprehensive system in place to cope with such attacks. "We're not building the means to respond well," says Stephen Flynn, a homeland-security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "And when we have that next terrorist incident, there will be hell to pay, because the American people will be in disbelief about how little has been done." Though President Bush pledged last January to send $3.5 billion to the state and local authorities who will bear the burden of responding to a terrorism emergency, the money was appropriated by Congress only last week. Interviews with dozens of homeland-security officials, from New York City to Long Beach, Calif., reveal that while local authorities around the country are more aware of the potential for terrorist strikes, they lack the resources to upgrade defenses against them. Hospitals say they can't train enough employees to effectively spot and treat victims of biological attacks; fire departments can't afford to buy the haz-mat suits needed to guard against deadly germs; sheriffs say they still learn about terrorist threats from cnn. The bottom line is that in many respects, the homeland is no more secure than it was on Sept. 10, 2001. "The biggest thing we've done," says William Harper, head of homeland security for the state of Arkansas, "is to avoid feeling comfortable." The White House contends that every locality can't be sprinkled with money from the Federal Government. Early this month, Budget Director Mitchell Daniels said that "there is not enough money in the galaxy" to devise a homeland-security system strong enough to protect every American. The White House points out that the $41 billion the Administration's current budget devotes to homeland security is double the amount spent on domestic defense programs before Sept. 11. But because of the partisan bickering that delayed the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, almost none of it has actually been spent. Democrats are accusing the White House of neglecting homeland security while it slashes taxes and takes up fights with enemies abroad. "How is it," says Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, "that we're asking widows to put duct tape on their house, when police, firemen and medical personnel don't have adequate resources?" Part of the answer rests in the new Homeland Security Department itself, the impetus behind the biggest reorganization of the Federal Government in a half-century. The new department, first proposed by the President last July, aims to bring 22 agencies and 175,000 employees, from border agents to biologists, under a single bureaucratic roof—and to do it before al-Qaeda tries to mount another attack. But the department is only beginning to pick up momentum. Since it opened its doors Jan. 24, only three out of a possible 23 appointees to the new department have received confirmation; most have not even been named. Given the challenge he faces in launching a new department in the midst of war and mushrooming deficits, Ridge has stayed upbeat. He has tried to shrug off the late-night barbs aimed at the department's color-coded alerts and duct-tape tutorials. A sheepish but good-humored Ridge finally said last week that "we do not want individuals or families to start sealing their doors or their windows," adding that "there may come a time" when authorities recommend that Americans do so. Undaunted by criticism that the White House may be needlessly frightening the public, Ridge plans to unveil this week yet another set of practical guidelines for how citizens should prepare for attacks. Ridge insists that on the whole, the country is safer than it was on Sept. 11. "Let me count the ways," he says, rattling off improvements in aviation security—from the hiring of 45,000 new federal screeners to the hardening of cockpit doors. Ridge says the Administration has improved communication between the FBI and the CIA, struck agreements with Mexico and Canada to tighten border controls and upgraded the "push packs" of medicines that can be dispatched to cities hit by biological or chemical attacks. But bad guys may still be slipping in—or eluding detection. FBI officials told TIME the bureau has identified "less than a dozen" Islamic men residing in the U.S. who have been to al-Qaeda training camps and are currently in contact with al-Qaeda leaders. Law-enforcement agents are monitoring these men with wiretaps, physical surveillance and other covert means; a handful of known Iraqi intelligence agents and 20 to 40 suspected al-Qaeda associates are receiving similar scrutiny. Officials say there's no credible evidence that Saddam, on his own or in league with al-Qaeda, has managed to smuggle biological or chemical weapons into the U.S. Still, so many targets on U.S. soil remain undefended or indefensible. Federal Homeland Security officials confided last week that the country's major subway systems are vulnerable to a toxic attack. The government has developed new sensors that can detect a toxic-chemical release and instantly alert emergency workers to where the substance is and how to fight it. So far, Washington has installed 100 sensors in its Metro stations; Boston has a small program in place, while New York City is still experimenting. That's it. The agency that regulates the country's 103 nuclear plants ordered security around sites tightened after Sept. 11. But watchdogs say those measures haven't been rigorously tested, and past test runs identified obvious security lapses like unlocked doors. Federal Homeland Security officials say they are now focused on bolstering security at the country's commercial seaports, which counterterrorism experts believe would be the most likely point of entry for a nuclear or dirty bomb. Customs officials have invited port owners to apply for grants for increased video monitoring, strengthened security fences and patrol boats; U.S. agents have also been deployed to foreign ports to check out containers before they head Stateside. But U.S. ports are still porous. The Coast Guard says it needs $4.4 billion to make minimal improvements to physical security at the nation's 361 ports, but so far the government has authorized only $92 million. The Long Beach-Los Angeles port, which handles 43% of the nation's incoming seaborne cargo, has received just $5.8 million. "Right now," says Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander, "we have a port system running that practically invites terrorists to attempt to come after us." So why are the holes so large? Put the question to just about anyone outside the Bush Administration, and you'll hear a familiar answer: money. It's a typical complaint, but experts of both parties agree that in this case increased funding would actually lead to more protection. A Brookings Institution study released last month estimates that the President's 2003 budget falls $7 billion below what's needed to fund basic security needs. Others want even bigger boosts. Last week Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman called for an additional $16 billion in homeland-security spending, to pay for thousands of additional border-patrol agents, bigger stockpiles of vaccines and antidotes and more aid to fire fighters and police departments. Outside Washington, at least, there is consensus. In New York City, police commissioner Ray Kelly says the city is still waiting for $900 million it has requested from the feds, some of which would go toward training police officers. "We are continuing to ask Washington for that money," he says. In Detroit, a critical node of homeland security, given its heavily trafficked border and large Arab-American population, city officials say they have spent $10 million on helicopters, protective suits and beefed- up border patrols. But other needs, including a communications system that would allow the city's emergency teams to talk with one another and their Canadian counterparts, have been shelved until federal help arrives. Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick says he has pleaded for more money. "It's very frustrating," he says. Smaller cities have fared even worse, with many forced to spend money on basic equipment they expected the feds would pay for. Says Donald L. Plusquellic, mayor of Akron, Ohio: "If you had told me when we met with Bush that it would now be some 500-plus days since Sept. 11 and we would still not have this money, I wouldn't have believed you." And yet in small and even heroic ways, officials across the country have thrown themselves into roles as the country's new defenders. Officials in rural Hardin County, Ohio, purchased a portable decontamination shower and are planning to simulate a terrorist-sponsored train derailment to test the danger posed to the area's local chemical facilities. In Iowa, state officials have held eight-hour seminars with farmers on the possibility of "agroterrorist" attacks on the food supply. But do citizens in Akron and Hardin County have any real reason to believe they could be hit next? The Administration's duct-tape alert had the perhaps counterproductive effect of suggesting that every household should consider itself a target—even while prime targets went undefended. "These threats are real," says Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., "but the increased probability of a terrorist attack does not increase the risks to any single individual." At the same time, even strengthening our defenses won't deter terrorists forever. The truth is, we probably have no way of knowing whether the country is prepared for the next attack until after it occurs. - Reported by Timothy J. Burger, James Carney, John F. Dickerson, Viveca Novak, Elaine Shannon and Michael Weisskopf/ Washington, Maggie Sieger/Detroit, Leslie Whitaker/ Chicago, Steve Barnes/Little Rock and Leslie Berestein/Los Angeles, with other bureaus - ISN is currently hosted by Attrition.org To unsubscribe email majordomoat_private with 'unsubscribe isn' in the BODY of the mail.
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