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Before Attack, U.S. Expected Different Hit
Chemical, Germ Agents Focus of Preparations

By Joby Warrick and Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 2, 2001; Page A01
 

The federal government spends nearly $800 million a year trying to predict and prepare for terrorist attacks -- commissioning expert studies, stockpiling supplies and staging mock exercises to test its readiness.

But the Sept. 11 attacks exposed a flaw in the government's thinking about the methods and reach of terrorists intent on mass destruction. Over the past few years, elaborate multi-agency planning exercises with flashy names such as "Red Ex" and "Dark Winter" focused overwhelmingly on biological and chemical threats while experts urging preparations for a simpler, more conventional attack found it difficult to be heard.

Of the more than 201 federal planning exercises conducted in the late 1990s, two-thirds were aimed at defending the public against biological and chemical attacks, government records show, even as multiple studies concluded that bombings, hijackings and other low-tech missions were far more likely.

Only a few federal exercises even came close to successfully predicting the strategy used by terrorists in attacking New York and the Pentagon. One expert panel commissioned by the Pentagon discussed in 1993 how an airplane could be used to bomb national landmarks. But the panel decided not to publish the theory, partly in fear of inspiring terrorists.

"It was considered radical thinking, a little too scary for the times," said retired Air Force Col. Doug Menarchik, who organized the $150,000 study for the Defense Department's Office of Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. "After I left, it met a quiet death."

Authorities are quick to note that no amount of "war-gaming" could accurately predict the acts of determined suicidal terrorists. But the shock and chaos that have followed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have heightened the government's determination to broaden the scope of its counterterrorism planning.

Last week, Comptroller General David M. Walker called on federal agencies to make a coordinated effort to "prevent and deter threats to our homeland as well as detect impending danger before attacks or incidents occur."

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded in several studies in the late 1990s that too many federal counterterrorism programs were based on "improbable, worst-case scenarios" that presented an "exaggerated view" of the likelihood of a chemical or biological assault. Terrorists would have to overcome enormous obstacles to unleash enough biological or chemical agents to kill large numbers of people, the GAO found.

Just last year, Norman J. Rabkin, a national security expert for the GAO, told a House subcommittee that federal efforts to combat terrorism "have been based on vulnerabilities rather than an analysis of credible threats."

In some cases, Rabkin said, "agencies' initiatives appear at odds with the judgment of the intelligence community," suggesting a failure to distinguish between "what is conceivable or possible and what is likely in terms of the threat of a terrorist attack."

"We were blinded by an excess of zeal," said Martha Crenshaw, a professor of government at Wesleyan University who studies terrorist motivations. "Lots and lots of money poured into research on chemical and biological threats. Entire research institutes were created for it. Weapons of mass destruction as the imminent terrorism threat swept everything before it."

Government records show dramatic growth in counterterrorism drills through the 1990s as terrorist attacks within the United States exposed vulnerabilities. Events sponsored by federal agencies between 1995 and 1998 ranged from academic "table-top" discussions to massive field exercises.

Two-thirds of the activities involved weapons of mass destruction, and half of those simulated a chemical attack, a 1999 GAO analysis found. Ninety-two percent of the Defense Department's exercises involved weapons of mass destruction.

The most ambitious drill -- dubbed "TopOff," short for "top officials," -- was a series of congressionally funded events that brought together federal, state and local leaders.

Last year's $3.5 million TopOff program staged large-scale mock terrorism raids in five cities, including a simulated biological attack in Cincinnati.

A 1998 TopOff exercise in Washington was structured around the government planners' concept of the world's deadliest terrorist attack. The attack began in Harrisburg, Pa., where a disaffected lab technician with a goatee, Ralph Stuart, concocted a potion of deadly anthrax bacteria in his basement. Within days, the germs were set loose in Manhattan by extremists calling themselves the Millennium Action Group. By week's end, 140,000 New Yorkers were dead.

The 250 officials, from fire chiefs to FBI agents, who attended the two-day exercise planned their probable responses down to the last detail -- from how quarantines would be enforced to what the news releases should say.

By contrast, the assignment for the Pentagon panel charged with writing a report called "Terror 2000" was to think broadly about international terrorism's evolution in a world that suddenly had a single superpower. The group of military officials, terrorism experts and "futurists" met at Virginia's Langley Air Force Base in 1993 to kick around a variety of scenarios, some of which seemed far-fetched, in the days before the Oklahoma City bombing.

"The main interest was to get people to think outside the box," said "Terror 2000" co-author Peter S. Probst, a Fairfax terrorism expert. "You begin with a blank sheet of paper and start to think about the United States through the eyes of a terrorist."

Several participants remembered discussing the possibility of a commercial airliner being deliberately flown into a public building in the nation's capital. The idea may have been inspired by disclosures about an alleged plot by hijackers to destroy France's Eiffel Tower using an aircraft, Probst said.

"Coming down the Potomac, you could make a left turn at the Washington Monument and take out the White House, or you could make a right turn and take out the Pentagon," Marvin J. Cetron, a Falls Church author and a leader of the exercise, recalled telling the group.

A version of the report marked "interim draft" correctly predicts several aspects of the Sept. 11 attack. "In the future, horrified civilians will get to watch every step in a terrorist plot," it says. "CNN and other networks will certainly air the footage."

Presaging a break from the state-sponsored terrorism familiar to most Americans at the time, the report said tomorrow's "most dangerous" terrorists would be "motivated not by political ideology but by fierce ethnic and religious hatreds."

"Their goal will not be political control but utter destruction of their chosen enemies," it said.

In a 1994 article commenting on the panel's findings and the broader discussions that inspired them, Cetron wrote that future terrorists motivated by ethnic and religious hatreds would pick "soft" targets -- sports arenas or shopping malls, for example -- because of their high visibility and greater opportunities for mass casualties.

"Targets such as the World Trade Center not only provide the requisite casualties but, because of their symbolic nature, provide more bang for the buck," he wrote in the Futurist magazine. "In order to maximize their odds for success, terrorist groups will likely consider mounting multiple, simultaneous operations with the aim of overtaxing a government's ability to respond, as well as demonstrating their professionalism and reach."

The decision not to publish detailed scenarios was made partly out of a fear that it could give terrorists ideas, participants said. A draft was circulated through the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but senior agency officials ultimately decided against a public release.

"That was a mistake," Probst said.

Still, panel participants said even they were stunned by the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks, never imagining how hijackings could cause such devastation and push the nation to the brink of war.

Menarchik, the Terror 2000 organizer, said future war-gamers now have to consider a broader range of disasters -- and they always run the risk of getting it wrong.

"You can plan your brains out for something that never occurs," said Menarchik, who now directs the presidential library and museum of former president George Bush. "No one will ever be able to completely predict the future."

Staff writers Mary Pat Flaherty and James V. Grimaldi contributed to this report.
 


2001 The Washington Post Company


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