We Can Handle the Most Likely Threats

I listened carefully to what Vice President Dick Cheney said last Sunday, May 19: “It’s almost certain that America will suffer a terrorist attack of the magnitude of 9-11. It could happen tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, but it will happen .… “

When I filter this statement through my sophisticated submarine BS filter, I get the message that the VP believes we will be hit again sometime, somewhere.

Well, gee, I suspect he’s correct – even if 9-11 hadn’t happened. After all, we have received significant terrorist hits periodically for more than a decade. I can’t think of any reason why it should stop now. I think the VP is on safe ground with this prediction.

So what’s all the fuss about?

I know we all get tired of hearing: the news media this … the news media that. But just this morning, Fox news interrupted one of its sage talking heads to show a continuous live broadcast of the Phoenix police chasing a hapless thief in his stolen pickup. The 30-minute broadcast beat watching grass grow, but not by much.

I guess things in the news media business are pretty slow right now.

Let’s see: Another homicide bomber in Israel, but they didn’t strike back (yet) so only Israelis died; a Special Forces casualty in Afghanistan, but he was just a reserve; no big games; no riots; independence for East Timor, but who cares; an idiot leads Phoenix police on a slow-speed chase; and – oh – the Bush Administration is predicting another attack. Now this is news – or is it?

What do we have? An increase in cell phone “chatter” that mimics what we saw (with 20-20 hindsight) after the 9-11 attacks. Several vague, undefined comments from several vague unidentified presumed bad-guys. A period of relative quite, like the dark before the dawn. And some Democrats are asking questions about connecting dots before 9-11 for which the administration has no convincing answers.

What is needed is a good dose of “They’re comin’ again … sometime, somewhere,” to focus attention elsewhere.

You gotta admit: It worked pretty good!

More seriously, however, Dick Cheney has a point. I cannot personally believe the bad guys will simply go away. I agree with the VP that another attack is a virtual certainty.

Let’s examine how this might happen:

Al Qaeda can operate in several basic modes: Their most potent weapon to date has been planes-as-missiles, and on a smaller scale, people-as-bombs. If they have access to nuclear anything, we don’t seem to have any convincing evidence yet. The one piece of information that went public was about a canister with nuclear markings that turned out to be a fake. The third mode is biological or chemical. We have some evidence that they might have made one or more test runs with some of these substances, but nothing is definite.

Can they pull off another 9-11? I don’t believe they can. Our homeland security net may not be perfected yet, but it is nearly inconceivable that a group of these guys could commandeer several more passenger aircraft and do it again. We shouldn’t relax our vigil, but so long as we don’t, there is really no way.

How about a smaller aircraft, like a Piper? That may be possible, but such a plane doesn’t carry sufficient fuel to become a potent aerial bomb. Can they pack a small aircraft full of High Explosive (HE), and then use that combination as a missile? Possibly, but HE is not the same as burning jet fuel. The difference here is between local damage versus catastrophic damage.

How about detonating such an HE-laden aircraft against a nuclear power plant containment building? It’s possible, but the plane will most likely simply bounce off, and make a lot of noise when it explodes. You can’t carry sufficient HE in a small plane to burst a containment building. If you could somehow strap the plane tightly to the surface of the building, then you might be able to penetrate the concrete, but a plane in flight is just going to bounce. It’s possible that the plant operators inside the building may not even be aware of the incident.

Replace the HE in the Piper with a small nuclear device, and you will definitely make your point. The problem is, of course, that it is nearly impossible for our opponents to obtain a working nuclear device. As I noted in an earlier article, (“New Nuclear Threat Is Based On Junk Science,” DefenseWatch, Mar. 6, 2002), the best these guys could hope for even if they actually got a nuke is a relatively confined ground burst in one of our larger cities.

A related option is for Al Qaeda to assemble a group of fertilizer-bomb laden trucks on the deck of a major bridge such as the Brooklyn Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge. With a bit of coordinated timing, and the willingness of the drivers to go meet their 79 virgins, there is no realistic way we can stop this approach, short of inspecting every single truck approaching such bridges. Such a preventative action would be so disruptive that we are unlikely to undertake it.

Realistically, we don’t need to go to any great lengths to protect ourselves from these threats, beyond what we already have done, and should continue to do.

Unfortunately, the zealots seeking our demise still have a potent weapon that will be used with, in Dick Cheney’s words, a near certainty.

How many guys riding bikes did you see today? How many of those bike riders had backpacks strapped to their backs? If you live in a university town, you probably don’t even see these guys anymore. They have become invisible, blending completely into the general background.

Students frequently carry items that are longer than their backpacks. A tube sticking out of a bike rider’s backpack, therefore, would be as invisible as the bike rider carrying it.

I have frequently disparaged our opponents by indicating that, as a group, they probably do not qualify for membership in Mensa. On the other hand, designing and building a small device that fits into a typical backpack, that will spray an aerosol in the wake of the rider, is within the capability of even these guys. If the rider is smart enough to ride into the wind, he can even survive the event.

It is very reasonable to assume that our potential attackers can set up a delivery system similar to what I have described. Short of stopping every bike rider with a backpack, I can see no way to intercept such attackers. If Al Qaeda decides to go this route, it will be successful. There is nothing we can do about it.

So how do we protect ourselves from this kind of attack?

The first question must be, what is the likely vector, the likely disease?

Anthrax comes to mind, of course, because of what has happened during the past months. Anthrax has a distinct disadvantage, however. It is not contagious. This means that each infection must come from released spores. It cannot be passed from person to person. As a biological weapon, therefore, it can start out with a bang, but will fade away with a whimper.

Ebola and some of the other hemorrhagic fever-producing viruses have been mentioned from time to time as potential biological agents. All of these, however, are very difficult to keep viable outside of a living host. This means that the mechanism we have developed in this article for disbursing the agent will not work for this disease category. The terrorist attackers simply do not have the sophistication to develop and maintain a useable hemorrhagic fever agent as a disease vector.

One very real possibility is Smallpox, assuming that the Russians retained a significant quantity of their weaponized Smallpox stock after the Soviet Union disintegrated. With the break-up of the Soviets, it is not a stretch for a significant quantity of weaponized Smallpox to have fallen into Al Qaeda hands.

Most American adults have received Smallpox vaccinations in their childhood, but since the United Nations announced the demise of Smallpox world wide several years ago, most younger Americans have not been vaccinated. Furthermore, medical experts tell us that the old vaccinations probably will not protect anyone from a Smallpox attack.

Since Smallpox posses a genuine threat, and since we cannot defend ourselves from its dispersal, our only option is to prevent post dispersal infection. In other words, we need to vaccinate the entire U.S. population for Smallpox, and we need to do this as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, the enemy has other available options.

What is the enemy’s goal? To make as many Americans either dead or deathly sick in as short a time as possible. Actually, deathly sick may be preferable, since this will tie up hospital facilities and generally disrupt the pattern of life dramatically.

What happens every Winter? What is another name for the winter season?

We call it the flu season, and for good reason. Even with our best intentions, every few years a new flu strain savagely ravages our society, killing the very young and the elderly, and making everyone else sick as a dog.

Unlike most viruses, the flu appears in literally numberless mutations or variations, all of which seem to make us sick. It’s relatively easy to incubate and grow, something a clever undergraduate can do with inexpensive equipment.

In other words, Al Qaeda can create and distribute a significant quantity of any number of flu strains, enough, in fact, to bring America to its knees, at least temporarily.

But it doesn’t end here. There is no compelling reason the distribution cannot be for more than one disease. If a thousand distributors circulate the streets and trails at a thousand campuses, distributing dozens of flu strains, plus Smallpox, Anthrax, Dengue Fever, Yellow Fever, Polio, Diphtheria, even Malaria and Plague….

This is how you bring the Great Satan to its knees.

How can you possibly stop something like this from happening?

Most likely, it’s impossible to prevent. Nevertheless, you do what you can:

* Vaccinate everybody for everything possible, without exception, by force, if necessary;

* Then close the borders – completely, totally, absolutely: nobody in or out for any reason, for the duration;

* Check out everybody who even looks like his or her grandfather might have been from the Middle East: profile, profile, profile;

* To control the courts and those who don’t get it, declare nationwide martial law;

* Detain anyone who cannot completely verify their bona fides.

Will any of this happen? Some vaccination, perhaps. Some border controls, possibly, but that’s it. You can’t do more in America – you don’t want to do more in America, otherwise, the bad guys win by default.

Consequently, a lot of us will get sick, and some of us will die. But the rest of us will prevail, and we’ll stay free, and this still will be the best nation ever to exist in the history of this planet.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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