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Last Updated February 12, 1999

The Militia Watchdog

Afraid of Bugs:  Assessing our Attitudes Towards Biological and Chemical Terrorism

A (Lengthy) Editorial by Mark Pitcavage

 

The Boogeyman is passe. The monster under the bed is old hat. There’s a much better way now to scare people. One simple word will do it. In fact, this one word has caused several hundred threats and hoaxes in the past year. Which word is this?

Anthrax.

Feel a shiver yet? Odds are the answer to that question is "yes," at least if you’ve seen one of the many sensationalistic television segments produced in the last year about the terrible specter of biological warfare. Grim-voiced narrators recite projections about hundreds of thousands of deaths while video cameras pan city streets full of blithely unsuspecting potential victims. The montage is punctuated by talking heads—scientists, perhaps, or public officials—describing the inevitable death and destruction. By the end of such stories, viewers are left wondering if there is any hope left at all, since it seems so easy for terrorists, or even one madman, to cause such horrible carnage.sampler.jpg (98550 bytes)

Sometimes, of course, we like to be scared. Stephen King’s classic novel "The Stand," whose main character is really an escaped biological warfare pathogen called "Captain Trips," has now frightened a generation of readers. More recently, Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon, with movies such as director Terry Gilliam’s "Twelve Monkeys," in which a crazed idealist virtually destroys the world with a biological weapon. The 1950s—an era that feared the prospect of nuclear war—produced movies about giant ants and giant lizards. It shouldn’t be any wonder that the 1990s--an era of AIDS, Mad Cow disease and Ebola--should be particularly receptive to more modern visions of man-made catastrophe.

Yet when we leave the realm of fiction and enter what we hope is the realm of fact, or at least rationality, it becomes a little disturbing to discover that the fright-mongering and sensationalism of the movies is not left behind. A recent article by Robert Taylor in "New Scientist" is just one example of this disconcerting trend. Titled "All Fall Down," its opening plug is typically alarmist: "One hundred kilograms of anthrax spores could wipe out an entire city in one go. It’s only a matter of time before bioterrorists strike."

It becomes more disturbing still when the alarmism comes not from journalists but from prominent public figures. At a recent classified hearing, intelligence analysts informed U.S. Senators that an attack would occur in the next ten years. Robert Blitzer, director of the FBI’s terrorism section, stated that "the consensus of people in the law enforcement and intelligence communities is that it’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, it’s when." At a press conference in 1997, Secretary of Defense William Cohen held up a five-pound bag of sugar in order to illustrate how much anthrax would be needed to devastate Washington, D.C.

Are such statements alarmist? Or are they merely well-timed cautions? What are the effects of this recent obsession with the threat of chemical and biological terrorism? There is considerable evidence to suggest that at least some of the effects, at least, have been adverse. Perhaps it is worth taking a somewhat more objective look at the whole nasty subject.

 

WMDS

Like anything the government ever gets involved with, the subject has an acronym: WMD, or weapons of mass destruction. Different experts have their own opinions on what to include in this definition, but we can safely discuss two categories of WMDS. The first category consists of conventional explosive devices of various kinds, the sorts that might blow up the World Trade Center or the Oklahoma City federal building. Conventional explosives compose the vast majority of all recorded uses of WMDs by terrorists. The second category has its own acronym: NBC, or nuclear/biological/chemical. These are the "low probability," but "high consequence" weapons that seldom ever are created or used, but, because the results of such use could be so horrendous, are given priorities quite disproportionate to their likelihood of occurring.

Of the three subcategories, "nuclear" weapons are the ones with which people are most familiar. After all, the entire world has lived with the threat of nuclear war for half a century. Nuclear terrorist events encompass a range of possibilities from detonating a nuclear device or devices to some sort of sabotage of a nuclear plant to spreading a radiological agent in some fashion. The mass destruction occurs either by explosive destruction (in the case of a detonation) or radiation poisoning (in most other scenarios). The stuff of James Bond movies for years, the public imagination has long since learned about this sort of terrorist threat.

And certainly the threat of a nuclear incident is real, if still remote. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the knowledge needed to construct simple atomic devices has been widely dispersed. However, the difficulty historically has not been merely to construct a suitable device but to procure the fissionable materials that would make the device actually explode. Jealous of their nuclear monopoly and cognizant of the dangers of easy access to weapons-grade fissionable materials, the various nuclear powers have for decades cooperated in erecting barriers to proliferation that have, on the whole, acted remarkably effectively in retarding the spread of access to such weapons. The collapse of the Soviet Union towards the end of the century, however, which was coupled with a significant degradation in that region’s control of both nuclear devices and fissionable material, has raised new questions about the dangers of nuclear terrorism. As if to punctuate that threat, in November 1995 Chechen rebels planted a package containing several ounces of radioactive material (Cesium 137) in a park in Moscow, although the container had no dispersal mechanism.

Still, two facts regarding nuclear terrorism deserve noting. The first is that, to date, it has been virtually non-existent outside the realm of Hollywood. Not even state-sponsored terrorism by a rogue regime with some sort of radiological capability has occurred. Non-state sponsored events have been limited to rare, non-dispersed events such as the Chechen example mentioned above, or the almost humorous incident the following year on Long Island, when UFO nuts plotted to use radium to poison local Republican party officials they thought were covering up the existence of extraterrestrials (the plotters did not know that the radium could do little harm).

The second fact is the reason why nuclear terrorism has been basically non-existent, and that reason is because the entire world has been extremely vigilant against it, spending billions of dollars on nonproliferation measures, intelligence, substance control, prevention and detection. These measures range from CIA undercover activities to strict accounting of fissionable materials to subsidizing ex-Soviet nuclear scientists and technicians. None of these measures can possibly guarantee complete success in the future, but at the very least they render the possibility of a serious nuclear incident within the United States to be very low indeed.

Far less under the control of such international vigilance are chemical and biological weapons, and this is one reason for the recent hue and cry surrounding them. There is no established international infrastructure that can effectively deal with this threat. There are, in fact, international biological and chemical weapons conventions, but compared to their nuclear equivalents, these conventions are particularly weak and ineffective, particularly with regard to inspection and verification.

Of the two types, chemical weapons are the more familiar. The class of chemical weapons consists of chemical agents designed to disable or to kill human beings upon contact. Such weapons were widely used in World War I, which made chemical agents such as mustard gas forever memorable. However, the horror with which such weapons were regarded as a result of that war made their use thereafter extremely rare. Fear of retaliation was probably an even greater motivating factor. Italy and Japan both used limited amounts during the 1930s against opponents (Ethiopia and China) that could not respond in kind. Most major powers stockpiled chemical weapons during World War II but refrained from first use. In the 1980s, Iraq under Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war; he also used such weapons against Kurdish dissidents in his own country.

The most common chemical weapons are mustard agents, which are usually debilitating but not fatal, and nerve agents, which enter the body through the lungs or skin, and can be extremely fatal. The two most common such agents are Sarin and VX (others include Tabun and Soman). VX is among the most deadly of substances; even a drop or two can be fatal.

Falling somewhere between chemical and biological agents is ricin. Ricin is a naturally-derived substance, made from processing castor beans, but the effects that it causes are essentially chemical in nature, rather than through some sort of pathogen. Ricin is believed to be extremely deadly, though most of our knowledge is based on animal studies and non-fatal accidental human exposures. There is currently no known antidote or vaccine, although some of the effects of ricin (which causes organ failure) may possibly be treated by normal medical procedures. Injected, as opposed to ingested, ricin, is expected to be virtually 100% fatal. Substances such as ricin are known as toxins; another example of such a substance is botulinum, produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. Toxins are usually more deadly than chemical agents, but unlike nerve agents, generally do not operate simply upon contact with the skin, and thus are more easily protected against.

The agents most commonly thought of as biological agents are disease-causing bodies, usually bacteria or viruses. Such pathogens may simply cause death, in which case the gross effects to a community would be similar in nature to a chemical incident (although with a longer onset time), or they may also be communicable, in which case the initial contamination could simply be the precursor to a far more serious problem. The most common pathogens thought of as bio-weapons are Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax, and Yersinia pestis, which causes plague (plague can appear in several forms; the most contagious form, pneumonic plague, is also the most fatal).

Chemical and biological agents are feared for several reasons, but most importantly because (theoretically, at least): 1) they are not too difficult to produce, 2) they can be particularly deadly, and 3) the deaths can be particularly horrific. In 1988, an Iranian leader proclaimed such agents the "poor man’s atomic bomb." A country that could not afford a Manhattan Project might be able to afford a Sarin Project. Similarly, dedicated terrorists might find such agents more easily within their reach than nuclear or radiological weapons.

 

The Alarm

Experts have long considered the possibility that terrorists, either independent or state-sponsored, might use chemical or biological weapons, but until fairly recently, considered the possibility of such use to be quite low. Before going into the circumstances that alarmed so many national security specialists, it is worth mentioning some of the dynamics that deter terrorists from the use of such weapons. These dynamics are particularly worth discussion because they have come to be almost entirely ignored in recent discussions of the issue.

The most important factor in the terrorist use of chemical or biological weapons is motivation; that is, the reasons why specific terrorist groups commit acts of terrorism in the first place. Generally speaking, there are several primary categories of motivation:

  • State-sponsored Terrorism. State-sponsored terrorists are terrorists completely or partially under the control of national governments, used as weapons against the enemies of such governments. For instance, North Korea has sponsored terrorist groups primarily to operate against South Korea. Iraq, unsuccessfully, tried to send out agents to conduct acts of terrorism against the United States during the Gulf War.
  • Nationalistic/Ethnic Terrorism. Nationalistic terrorism typically occurs when a people attempt to achieve self-determination against the wishes of the government in power. This is perhaps the most common form of terrorism today; examples include Basque terrorism in Spain, IRA activities in Northern Ireland, and Palestinian terrorism in the Middle East. Conceivably it could include the activities of white supremacists in the United States seeking to achieve some sort of "white homeland."
  • Non-state Ideological Terrorism. This sort of terrorism, comparatively rare, consists of terrorist groups which commit acts of terrorism in the pursuit of some broad ideology (or, alternatively, theology), rather than for a specific nationalistic or ethnic goal. Such terrorists tend to international in nature, committing a wide variety of acts in a number of different geographical areas. Many of the left-wing international terrorists of the 1970s might fit into this category; so too might some of the radical animal rights groups active since the1980s. Because such terrorists can sometimes adopt nationalistic causes or accept sponsorship from nation-states, they sometimes blend into the other categories.
  • Anti-government Terrorism. Anti-government terrorism might be considered "revolutionary" terrorism, in that it consists of acts directed against ruling governments by people discontented with such governments. Such malcontents might wish to replace the government, but do not wish to separate themselves from the nation it governs. The actions of Timothy McVeigh might be a good recent example of this form of terrorism.

Having identified four broad forms of terrorism and their motivations, we can return to the question of chemical and biological weapons. Of these different types of terrorists, the ones most likely to be able to create and use chemical weapons are state-sponsored terrorists, which theoretically have the resources of a state behind them. They also often have clear targets to aim at (the foes of their state). However, because of the involvement of a state, a serious deterrent to the use of chemical and biological weapons exists, because the state may be subject to retaliation, indeed, severe retaliation. An Iraqi-sponsored terrorist group, for instance, would have to think long and hard about using such weapons against an American target, given the fact that such use would lead to immediate and drastic retaliation against Iraq itself. In addition, the state sponsors might themselves be wary about providing such technology to a group over which their control might well be less than complete.

Theoretically, nationalistic/ethnic terrorists would have less to fear in terms of retaliation, because their acts would be directed against their own government, which would be less likely to retaliate so severely against its own citizens (although Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against his) than those of another state. However, such terrorists depend for their success upon manipulating the emotions of the larger, "other" population, and must strike a balance between demoralizing that population so that it will give in to the separatists’ demands and enraging the population to such a degree that it resorts to massive retaliation or even genocide (which has occurred several times in this century). Were Kosovo Albanian separatists to use a biological weapon in Belgrade, for instance, it would be highly unlikely that many would survive the inevitable retaliation. Consequently, conventional weapons of mass destruction might be safer ways of achieving the same goal. A secondary factor, but still of major importance, is that many such movements depend to one degree or another upon external (i.e., international) support for their continued existence, and it is unlikely that such support would be continued after the use of such weapons.

Similarly, anti-government terrorists might be reluctant to use such weapons as well. Here it would not be a question of retaliation against one’s own people, but the fact that the intended target is not anybody’s people but rather the government itself. While a certain lack of discrimination in target selection can take place, massive random casualties of a horrific sort simply will not win converts to the cause.

This leaves us with the non-state ideological terrorists, who are clearly the most dangerous terrorists in this regard. Because they are not strongly connected to one particular nation or nationality, they have little fear of retaliation. Because they seek to achieve broad, ideological goals, they need not discriminate too closely between attacking governments and attacking populations, particularly if they think it might help achieve the larger end. And, in fact, it was just such a group which committed the only major act of chemical or biological terrorism in recent history, the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which will be discussed below.

In addition to the basic fact that motivational dynamics work against many types of terrorist groups when it comes to the likelihood of their using chemical or biological weapons, there are other factors too which make such use generally less likely. The first factor is the danger involved. While conventional weapons of mass destruction always carry a certain amount of danger for those using them—many terrorists have conveniently blown themselves up while trying to construct or transport explosives—the consequences of exposure to chemical or biological weapons are often much more deadly and quite horrific. This threat of exposure comes not only in the manufacture but also in the dispersal of such agents.

A second factor working against their use is the simple question of expertise. It is true, as numerous observers note, that some chemical and biological agents are not difficult to construct. Theoretically, given instructions, most people could create ricin. However, expertise in chemical and biological weapons is simply not something that most people have. It must be attained, either by acquiring the knowledge or by recruiting someone with that knowledge. Microbiology is knowledge that is unlikely randomly to appear in a pool of terrorists. One must contrast that with the knowledge of conventional weapons and explosives that most terrorists are comparatively likely to have, if for no other reason, than through the likelihood of past service in armed forces of one sort or another. Simply put, it is easy for a terrorist group to find people with expertise in weapons and explosives. It is another thing to for such a group to find people of similar ideology and commitment who have knowledge of how to cultivate plague bacteria.

A related problem is that even if a group knows how to produce a chemical or biological agent, it must then solve the equally (if not more so) difficult technical problem of dispersal. Conventional weapons of mass destruction solve this problem inherently: they explode, carrying their destruction with them. Terrorists who wish to use chemical or biological agents must not only develop a supply of the agent, but they must hit upon a dispersal system that will transform the agent into a weapon of mass destruction. A coffee can full of ricin is a poison. It is not a weapon of mass destruction.

Lastly, one must note that there are broad cultural taboos against deliberately sickening or poisoning people, such that blankets infected with smallpox hundreds of years ago are still notorious incidents. While it is customary in popular media to portray terrorists as amoral, ruthless individuals with no moral code whatsoever, this is often not the case, as the incongruity of Hamas, simultaneously a terrorist organization and a relief organization, demonstrates. Simply put, terrorists must overcome societal taboos of various strengths before resorting to the use of such weapons. Some terrorists may be able to do so; others will not.

National security experts have broadly been aware of all of these factors for decades; as a result, there was never any great or unreasonable fear of the use of chemical or biological weapons by terrorists. No one would deny that the possibility was there, but it certainly seemed remote compared to all of the tactics that terrorists actually were using, in the form of conventional weapons of mass destruction.

It is thus fascinating to note that it took simply one event, one single incident, to cause a great many otherwise knowledgeable people to throw this knowledge out the window and to worry, not about what had happened in the past, not about what was happening now, not about what was really likely to happen in the future, but about what just might happen. That event was the Aum Shinrikyo subway gas attack in Tokyo in 1995.

The Aum Shinrikyo cult—one of tens of thousands of Japanese cults—formed in 1987 and was led by Shoko Asahara, a former health food dealer. Asahara and some of his followers attempted to gain power through running for office in the late 1980s, but met with defeat. Afterwards, Asahara grew increasingly anti-government, wanting to somehow forcibly separate his growing cult from the government of Japan. Aum Shinrikyo, which borrowed from Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism alike, grew to encompass tens of thousands of members, not just in Japan, but also in Korea and Russia. Expertly appropriating the assets of its members, as well as finding other sources of income, the cult not only amassed a huge fortune, but also developed a significant armaments capability as it grew more confrontational. This capability included the ability to manufacture chemical and biological weapons. Chillingly, the cult also had the desire. The cult’s "Ministry of Science and Technology," as well as its "Ministry of Health and Welfare," worked throughout the 1990s to develop various agents, including botulinum, anthrax, and sarin. Efforts were also made to experiment with other agents as well, possibly even Ebola.

Throughout the 1990s, Aum Shinrikyo made numerous attempts to use chemical and biological agents. At least three times in 1993 it attempted to spread anthrax spores around government buildings in Tokyo. However, there were problems both in its development of the spores and its dissemination method. On March 15, 1995, cult members planted suitcases in the Tokyo subway which were designed to release botulinum (but the suitcase contained a non-toxic substance instead, apparently substituted by a reluctant cult member—an example of the moral qualms that would-be terrorists do not always overcome).

Five days later, on March 20, 1995, Aum Shinrikyo members activated crude devices on the Tokyo subway designed to release the nerve agent sarin into the underground structure. The episode killed twelve people, while up to 5,000 more received hospitalization of one length or another. Media-rich Japan broadcast the images of the attack—mostly panic-stricken people—to the world. It was the first well-publicized chemical or biological terrorist incident to strike the "global village."

The results of the subway attack stunned the world, but particularly the incident frightened the United States. Public officials and defense experts alike looked at what happened in Japan, then looked at their own nation. The United States was ever so much more inviting a target for terrorists than was nonconfrontational Japan. If a country like Japan had been visited by bio-chem terrorists, then surely it was just a matter of time before the United States was. "It was a wake-up call, frankly," said Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, "to us and to the entire world, that people in the future are going to use these rather terrible weapons in ways that will—that could potentially just bring an entire city to its knees." Arizona senator John Kyl, chairing a Senate subcommittee on chemical and biological threats in 1998, used the same phraseology: "Three years ago, we received a terrible wake-up call when the Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas in a crowded Tokyo subway. A theoretical possibility had become real, searing forever in our consciences the vulnerability of our open societies to CBW terrorist attack."

Almost overnight, the Tokyo incident had transformed terrorists from being reluctant to use such weapons to being willing and able, indeed eager, to do so. "Some groups and individuals bent on committing terrorism appear to be thinking beyond guns and bombs and opting for weapons with the potential of being far more lethal," boldly asserted one magazine article. However, the only evidence for this "thinking" that accompanied the article were non-terrorist-related incidents of deliberate food poisoning in the United States. Defense and intelligence officials were not immune to this contagion. In 1996, the director of the Nonproliferation Center of the CIA testified before Congress that "extremist groups worldwide are increasingly learning how to manufacture chemical and biological agents, and the potential for additional…attacks by such groups continues to grow." In 1998, Defense Intelligence Agency head Patrick Hughes suggested that such weapons have a "high probability of being used over the next two decades."

Accompanying these statements were the most dreadful scenarios that could possibly be concocted. For instance, one report described a cropdusting plane carrying 100kg of anthrax spores killing three million people in the Washington, D.C., area. A sign of the level of alarmism that had been raised was signified by the sudden attention paid to writer Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone, a book which presented an alarmist view of an anthropomorphized Ebola virus (a virus that "wanted" to infect people). Preston was now of sufficient stature to write dire editorials on biological warfare and even to appear before Congressional committees on the subject.

What few people seemed to be willing to do was to sit down and assess exactly what the Aum Shinrikyo episode portended, if indeed, it portended anything at all. An optimistic—or even a realistic—assessment would in fact paint a picture far different than those of the alarmists. The bottom line was that the Aum Shinrikyo had resources greater than possibly any other terrorist group around—including funds that would make Osama bin-Laden appear in need of a handout, membership perhaps as high as 50,000, a skilled coterie of scientists, and a doomsday, anti-government ideology to make it all work. Yet the history of Aum Shinrikyo was one of failure after failure, capped finally by one "success," which resulted in only twelve deaths (and admittedly a large number of hospitalized, but the great majority only superficially injured). The Oklahoma City bombing alone—committed by a few impoverished extremists—killed 168. The evidence seemed to suggest that in fact a successful chemical or biological attack would be quite difficult to carry out successfully even by the most sophisticated sort of group. Yet few interpreted the evidence this way. One who did was Jessica Stern, author of Risk and Dread: Preempting the New Terrorists. In a New York Times editorial, aptly titled, "Taking the Terror out of Bioterrorism," she noted that the facts "warrant concern, but not panic…Few countries, and even fewer terrorist groups, if any, are now capable of launching an open-air attack that would create mass casualties." Most other analysts simply corrected the many mistakes made by Aum Shinrikyo and, creating a "perfect" world, suggested that they could have done much more damage had they been mistake-free.

One of the most visible signs of the Aum Shinrikyo panic in the United States was the sudden and drastic elevation of any incident involving chemical or biological agents to an act of terrorism. But, since there were hardly any such incidents in the United States to speak of, the straws that were grasped at were thin reeds indeed. However, the chem-bio panic in the United States coincided precisely with a very real and genuine rise in anti-government extremist activity, one that could be seen with criminal acts of virtually every level of seriousness being committed by right-wing, anti-government extremists. Although the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995—only a month after the Tokyo subway gas attack—was the most visible such incident, it was hardly the only one, as authorities uncovered numerous bombing plots, murders, and other crimes violent and nonviolent aimed at the government. The combination of Tokyo and Oklahoma City was perhaps too much for anybody to resist. It seemed inevitable that bioterrorism would soon hit home in the United States.

And, indeed, there were a few isolated incidents involving extremists. In 1992 two members of an anti-government group called the Minnesota Patriots Council were arrested for having manufactured a quantity of ricin in order to kill a sheriff’s deputy and a U.S. marshal. They received 33-month sentences. Two other conspirators were later arrested and convicted as well. In 1993 Thomas Lewis Lavy, reportedly an anti-government extremist, was arrested leaving Alaska for Canada. Canadian customs discovered a bag of ricin in his possession. In 1995 he was arrested at his farm in Arkansas for this incident; he committed suicide in jail only three days later. No evidence was ever presented that Lavy intended to use the ricin. In fact, neither one of these incidents could be said to in any way represent a threat of "mass destruction."

If the United States, then, could not find an Aum Shinrikyo of its own, perhaps the only thing to do was to invent one. The unlikely Asahara of America was one Larry Wayne Harris. Larry Wayne Harris was indeed an extremist. He was a member of the white supremacist group Aryan Nations and a follower of the hate-filled religious sect Christian Identity, which believes that only whites are God’s chosen people. He did not, however, have his own cult and hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. He was a well inspector from Lancaster, Ohio, who had a following of basically one—an unbalanced young man named Steve Wharf who would shortly be arrested for car theft and other related charges.

What Larry Wayne Harris lacked in the real world, he more than made up for in his own mind. By the time he was middle-aged he had concocted an elaborate fantasy world in which he was not a science tech with a bachelor’s degree on a dead-end job, but a former CIA operative who was privy to some of the most sensitive secrets in the world. While he was taking classes at The Ohio State University, an exotic Iraqi female student had confided in him of secret Iraqi government plans to devastate the United States with anthrax and bubonic plague. Only Larry Wayne Harris, working on his own, could defeat the coming threat. It would not be inaccurate regarding Mr. Harris to suggest that his bucket did not go all the way to the bottom of his well. Indeed, Steve Wharf’s lawyer would soon call him to the witness stand to suggest to the jury that Wharf had been driven a little bonkers by the erratic Larry Wayne Harris. On the stand, Harris willingly testified about his CIA relationship, his belief in creationism, and the fact that he and a few compatriots had scientifically proven the existence of God.

But what really interested Larry Wayne Harris was not God but biological agents. He decided he had to write a book teaching people how to protect themselves against threats such as anthrax, and determined to conduct experiments of his own as well. With the help of a few deft lies, in May 1995 he obtained some samples of (inert) bubonic plague, sent via Federal Express and stored carefully in the glove compartment of his 1989 Subaru. His triumph was short-lived, as health officials had become suspicious when he kept calling them asking them where his plague was, and had notified authorities. Federal authorities swooped down on the "plague man." The only problem was, it wasn’t illegal to possess bubonic plague. Harris was able to bargain down to a single count of wire fraud (for falsifying the original request) in exchange for a guilty plea. He received only probation.

One would think that this non-incident would have then been forgotten, but in fact the plague incident made a great many people happy. Larry Wayne Harris ended up a celebrity. His fifteen minutes of fame were basically over (or so he thought) in the real world, but in the world of the "patriot" movement, that loose collection of various types of anti-government extremists, Larry Wayne Harris had gone from being a nobody to being a noted authority. His self-published book came out and Harris found himself hawking it on numerous "patriot" shortwave radio shows. He was never billed as "Larry Wayne Harris, well inspector," or "Larry Wayne Harris, that bubonic plague guy," but always as "Larry Wayne Harris, defensive biological warfare expert." He shared microphones and stages with such militia luminaries as Mark "Mark from Michigan" Koernke, that is, when he wasn’t busy making presentations at "patriot" meetings and survivalist expositions.

And the government was happy, too, because even though it hadn’t put Harris in jail for anything, it now had a bona fide anti-government, white supremacist person who liked to dabble in biological agents. It could recreate Harris in whatever form it wanted to, use him as its own "there, but for the grace of god, goes our Aum Shinrikyo." FBI director Louis Freeh told a Senate subcommittee not only that Harris had fraudulently ordered some plague, but that "he was going to use that against somebody." Few discussions of biological weapons, whether undertaken by national security analysts or the media, could resist mentioning Larry Wayne Harris. The Harris case resulted in U.S. laws against possession of biological agents being strengthened.

Unfortunately, the story did not end up particularly happily for either side. Harris’ propensity for living in a fantasy world—which now involved primarily a fixation with Iraqi anthrax—led him to suggest to anybody who would listen, that he himself had made anthrax in the past. It also led him to association with a mild-mannered fire extinguisher manufacturer named William Job Leavitt, Jr., of Logandale, Nevada. Leavitt, like Harris, had a propensity for self-directed, unorthodox research, but unlike Harris, actually was wealthy enough to do it on a sizable scale. After meeting Harris at an alternative science conference, Leavitt hired Harris to help him test a bizarre device being sold by one Ronald Rockwell. Rockwell’s "AZ58 ray tube," allegedly could kill all bacteria through frequency vibration. Leavitt—who could charitably be called an extremely impressionable man—had plans to manufacture the tube in his lab in Germany. Harris and Leavitt decided to test the materials on anthrax. Harris could not help boasting about the "military grade" anthrax he brought along, which he claimed could wipe out a city, but in fact, the anthrax was just another product of Harris’ imagination. The vials he had simply contained anthrax vaccine, not any harmful sort of anthrax at all.

However, this was apparently unknown to Ronald Rockwell, who contacted the FBI on February 18, 1998 to inform them about the anthrax. One might say that Rockwell was concerned about the possibility of Harris with anthrax and wanted to alert authorities. More cynically, one might note that Rockwell was a crank researcher with a criminal past who realized that his hoped-for multimillion dollar deal with Leavitt was probably not likely to go down. In any case, authorities paid no attention to Rockwell’s background or credibility, but did pay a considerable amount of attention to Harris’ past, or at least the popular conceptions of his past. By that evening there was close FBI surveillance of Leavitt and Harris, complete with helicopters and a floating SWAT team. In short order they arrested the two, charging them initially with conspiracy to possess and possession of a biological agent.

To the credit of the FBI, special agent in charge Bobby Siller told a news conference that there was no indication that the men had any target and that no one in the Las Vegas area was in any danger. However, the episode almost immediately became a media spectacle. A background comment in the FBI affidavit which described Harris discussing the consequences of a biological attack on New York City (in much the same terms, it should be noted, that many public officials across the country had previously done) somehow was interpreted for a time as evidence of an actual plot by Harris to attack New York City. New York tabloids blared the headlines: SUBWAY PLAGUE TERROR and FEDS NAB 2 IN TOXIC TERROR. And of course, Harris’ past was dredged up again and again. Reporters talked to anyone who had had either past experiences with or opinions on Harris—including, it should be noted, this author—while news stations geared up for another round of doom-filled stories on biological warfare. Of course, they had little else to do; everybody was waiting to see if the seized vials actually contained "military grade anthrax," as Harris had earlier boasted, or if they merely contained anthrax vaccine, which their lawyers claimed after the arrest. The samples had been flown to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infection Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Maryland, where it took experts there about thirty full hours to determine that the samples were harmless.

The denouement was not particularly pretty. The FBI raided Harris’ home, ransacking it for possible samples of the anthrax he liked to claim he had. It found none. Leavitt was released, quite happy to be cleared of the charge of biological terrorist. Harris, however, was shipped back to Ohio in March, where, it was hoped, it would be found that he had violated the terms of his probation. By the time of the hearing, though, it looked like the only probation violation that would stick was Harris’ tendency to ignore the proscription against his claiming he was once affiliated with the CIA. It seemed like a hard thing to send a man to prison for claiming he had been a CIA operative and so, eventually, Larry Wayne Harris was freed. He returned to Lancaster, in all likelihood probably not having learned any lessons, but having been relatively quiet since then.

The government had, however, definitely proved it would take biological weapons seriously—perhaps too seriously. This would be seen only a couple of months later when three members of the extremist group known as the Republic of Texas were arrested in July 1998 near Brownsville. The trio—Johnie Wise, 72; Jack Abbot Grebe, Jr., 43; and Oliver Dean Emigh, 63—were arrested and held without bond on charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. However, it is somewhat questionable the amount of mass destruction their weapon of choice could have caused. The imaginative but, one must conclude, not very bright conspirators had decided to modify a Bic lighter to shoot out a cactus needle that would be laced with a biological agent like rabies, anthrax or botulism. Their "hit" list included Bill Clinton, Janet Reno, Louis Freeh and others. However, they apparently never made any attempt to obtain any biological agent. The government did not fare very well in court. Oliver Dean Emigh was acquitted on all eight charges, while Grebe and Wise were each convicted only on two counts of sending threatening e-mail to government agencies (for which they would later be sentenced to considerable jail terms). Federal prosecutor Mervyn Mosbacker called the verdict a "victory," saying that agents saved lives by arresting the men. "I don’t think the U.S. should have to wait for someone to cause death and destruction to respond to a threat of that kind," he said. What seems clear, though, is that the government had not taken the time to determine what sort of "threat," if any, there actually was. Once more the word "anthrax" had caused a great deal of excitability without much in the way of sober assessment.

The inevitable result of all this alarm is that it has entered the public consciousness that people are deathly afraid of agents like anthrax. The result has been a huge upswing in the number of scares involving threats of anthrax. The typical incident might be a container containing an unknown substance left at a synagogue or an abortion clinic, with a note attached to it that claims that the substance is anthrax. In the fall of 1998, dozens of letters were sent to abortion clinics and other places playing the anthrax card. In fact, in 1998 FBI Director Louis Free testified that of 114 weapons of mass destruction cases worked in the previous year, an amazing 80 percent of them turned out to be hoaxes. The figures for 1998 will prove to be considerably higher, as hundreds of anthrax hoaxes occurred in that year.

This leads to the rather disturbing conclusion that the more alarmist the government and media are about the prospect of biological and chemical incidents, the more law enforcement resources are going to be wasted chasing after anthrax hoaxers.

 

The Plans

Luckily, there is less excitability and more practical assessment in the nation’s recent efforts to deal with the threat of chemical and biological weapons posed by terrorists. That is, planners have identified a number of areas in which mitigation and consequence management tactics may be used and have allocated resources accordingly. So in that sense, at least, money is not being thrown away. The question still remains, though, whether the broad direction in which those resources are being allocated in reality the best strategy to take.

Government policy towards domestic safeguards against chemical and biological weapons after Aum Shinrikyo and Oklahoma City essentially began with Presidential Decision Directive 39 (PDD 39), set forth in 1995 to revise federal roles and missions for counter-terrorism. This directive, among many other items, gave the FBI the lead agency role in responding to such crises within the United States. However, even at the federal level, actual resources are divided among a large number of different programs in different departments, with the level of coordination between them sometimes questionable.

One can generalize by stating that bioweapons efforts have, for good or ill, largely been conceived in terms of consequence management. In response to a chemical or biological incident, the FBI can activate a Domestic Emergency Support Team (DEST), comprised of representatives of the FBI, the Department of Defense, the Public Health Service, EPA and FEMA, which can be airlifted to the crisis "within a matter of hours." It has also developed other, more specialized resources, such as a Weapons of Mass Destruction Operations Unit to analyze threats and guide operational responses to them, and a Hazardous Materials Response Unit, able to process substances in a protected environment. However, the military possesses superior disposal capabilities, so the FBI on occasion might have to request assistance. Additional federal programs may be identified by some of their 1998 appropriations, including $8 million for developing tools for on-scene identification; $21.2 million for state and local equipment and training;

$5.2 million for an FBI Hazardous Devices School in Alabama; $16 million for providing operational response equipment and training to state and local agencies; and $2 for a state and local training center for first-responders in Alabama.

It is widely acknowledged that, however rapid a federal response might be (and it is currently not thought to be rapid enough), local responders must bear the brunt of confronting a chemical or biological influence. Consequently, under the influence of Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, Congress passed a bill (Nunn-Lugar) to try to provide funds to 120 cities within five years for protective garments, detection equipment and training. In its first year, however, the program reached only 23 cities. The training program consists of an initial visit of Department of Defense presenters, several presentations of courses for public safety personnel, and a "tabletop biological exercise" (the exercises have received considerable criticism as being "photo-ops"). Each city is also given about $300,000 for training and equipment, which is basically a drop in the bucket. The training involved, however, might not be too reassuring for citizens: it consists largely of acquainting first responders with symptomology, so that they themselves do not get contaminated from whatever substances are involved. When asked in 1998 by Congress how much it might cost over the next five years to "adequately equip" state and local governments, Attorney General Janet Reno could not even come up with a figure.

In addition to its role in training in the Nunn-Lugar plan, the U.S. military would also expand its role in other ways. In March 1998 Secretary of Defense William Cohen announced the establishment of a Consequence Management Program Integration Office, led by a lieutenant colonel, to integrate various existing programs and to establish ten Rapid Assessment and Initial Detection (RAID) elements, each of which would consist of 22 full-time National Guard personnel trained to provide early assessment and detection. This would be part of about $50 million requested for the FY99 budget to deal with such issues. Broken down, the funds would include $19.9 million for the RAID elements; $15.9 million for patient decontamination and WMD reconnaissance training; $6.9 million for the Consequence Management office; $3.3 million to prepare medical personnel for operating in contaminated areas; $1.8 million for additional Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer training days; and $1.4 million to upgrade simulations systems with WMD-effects modeling.

Much effort, as can be seen by the above figures, focuses on isolation and decontamination efforts. This emphasis, however, has met with some criticism by those who stress that it is inadequate to deal with some of the unique features of biological attack. These criticisms come largely from representatives of the third major actor in dealing with such threats, the nation’s public health system. As an epidemiologist, Michael T. Osterholm, testified at a Senate hearing, "current systems for counteracting bioterrorist attacks are erroneously being built on models for incidents involving chemical agents…[In such cases], the impact of the attack is immediate, localized, and the affected area and victims are readily identified. Hence, medical management and decontamination efforts can be directed quickly to specific sites….In the case of a clandestine biological attack, however, sick individuals will not likely be met first by specially trained first response teams. Instead, these infected individuals will seek medical attention in a variety of civilian settings, including emergency rooms, doctors’ offices, or clinics at scattered locations." What was needed, he stressed, was a strengthening of the Centers for Disease Control to be able to detect simultaneous, multiple cases in order to identify and manage bioterrorist-originating outbreaks, which would cost about $200 million. Other public health measures urged included the creation of vaccine and drug stockpiles. This was one point hammered home by Donald Henderson, former chief of the CDC’s Surveillance Section. "We need to be as prepared to detect and diagnose, to characterize epidemiologically and respond appropriately to biological weapons use as we need to be prepared to respond to the threat of new and emerging infections," he told a conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in March 1998.

The Clinton administration was open to such measures. In May 1998, Clinton announced the redirection of $300 million of appropriations to chem-bio defense. He announced a proposal to create a stockpile of specialized medicines. And he proposed a program for over $100 million a year to provide equipment, diagnostic tools, detection tools, protective equipment and similar gear directly to state and local governments. He also asked for funds for the Department of Health and Human Services to strengthen the nation’s public health detection and diagnostic system. The president also decided to "evaluate the potential" for a research program designed to detect genetically altered pathogens, as well as the need for decentralized laboratory capabilities to confirm field identifications.

And more recently, the administration established yet another office, the National Coordinator for Security, Critical Infrastructure Protection and Counter-Terrorism, headed by Richard Clarke. With that, it announced plans to provide "one-stop shopping" for state and local officials seeking aid in buying protective equipment. Finally, in January 1999, President Clinton, claiming that a germ or chemical attack on U.S. soil was "highly likely," stated that he would ask Congress for $2.8 billion in the next budget to fight chemical, biological and cyberterrorism. Clinton even said he was considering a Defense Department proposal to establish a commander in chief for the defense of the continental United States, something not done even during the Cold War. He also said he was considering a proposal to give anthrax vaccinations to all police, fire, public health and other emergency officials in the country. These proposed measures would dwarf many previous efforts.

One can see that on the federal level the expenses for preparation for biological and chemical incidents rises well into the hundreds of millions of dollars and may soon enter the billions. This does not, however, adequately characterize the total amounts spent on the issue, for it does not include the so-far uncalculated amounts that state and local governments and agencies have spent on related issues. The total amount being poured into the bio-chem issue may never be known.

 

Correct Priorities?

Perhaps it would be best to stop for a moment and see where the situation stands. So far we have seen that a) regardless of the predictions of pessimistic forecasters, the threat level of biological and chemical incidents on American soil has so far been extremely low, and b) despite this, the country is engaged in spending hundreds of millions of dollars in a not-necessarily-well-coordinated effort to deal with this threat.

The first question one must ask in response to these points is whether the dire consequences of such incidents are worth such expenditures of time and money despite the relatively low probability of their occurrence. Of course, none of the efforts mentioned so far could even slightly stem the most vividly imagined alarmist scenarios of biological or chemical weapons. Those terrorists in the air above Washington, D.C., or in boats on the Hudson River, with their perfectly designed dispersal devices and perfect atmospheric conditions—well, they’re going to cause all those horrible casualties that the doomsayers predict, and there’s not much a DEST or a RAID is going to be able to do save those hundreds of thousands of people.

Does this mean that we should simply drop all efforts to protect ourselves from biological or chemical weapons? How could we live with ourselves if we did so and then suffered an attack? That doesn’t seem to be a very acceptable solution.

Perhaps the best solution would be to treat the biochem threat as what it really is, a civil defense issue. Civil defense theorists during the Cold War era discovered—eventually—that it was simply not possible to prepare the entire nation (or even a good part of it) against the prospect of massive nuclear attack. The costs to do so were simply prohibitive (something the Soviet Union, which had a more active civil defense program, perhaps did not discover until it was too late). Consequently, as time wore on, the United States slowly abandoned large-scale civil defense programs in order to concentrate its resources on a much better strategy—stopping such an attack in the first place so that the civil defense programs would not be needed (this strategy consisted both of maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent and in engaging in arms negotiations to reduce the threat of nuclear war).

This seems clearly what the United States needs to do for chemical and biological weapons. And to be fair, the government has indeed recognized this need. Richard Clarke announced a four-tier national strategy in the fall of 1998 for dealing with chemical and biological weapons. The first two tiers dealt with the civil and military consequence management programs discussed in more detail above. But the third tier involved increased detection and interception of chem-bio precursor weapons and equipment, cooperation with friendly governments in interdiction and similar issues, working with a new international organization similar to the International Atomic Energy Agency, but for chemical weapons, and the urging for similar measures for biological weapons. The fourth tier involved "deterrence and disruption" for rogue states and terrorist groups engaged in developing such weapons. However, currently the majority of the nation’s energies are focused on mitigation rather than prevention when it comes to chemical and biological weapons, particularly in the domestic arena.

We must also realize that, even if prevention rather than mitigation becomes the major focus of our efforts, that not all chemical or biological events would be of a magnitude that would overwhelm even the best efforts. Indeed, past events suggest that the typical such incident—should it ever occur—would be of small or moderate magnitude. This suggests that when it comes to mitigation, rather than spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to protect all at once 120 different major urban areas in this country (efforts that must continually be replicated because of turnover and other issues), there would be less duplication of effort in the creation of one or more highly-mobile quick response teams (analogous, perhaps, to the Hostage Rescue Team), that can be quick enough to provide effective assistance to local responders.

Lastly, we should perhaps acknowledge that if an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then for the domestic side as well as for the foreign side it is the area of prevention that should receive major attention. And here we should acknowledge that when it comes to weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists, chemical and biological weapons are still so far largely theoretical. Louis Freeh himself, in another context, noted this fact when he said that: "The potential consequences of a single act of terrorism can be absolutely enormous. For example, the magnitude of human suffering flowing from the bombings of the World Trade Center, the Murrah Building, Khobar Towers and Pan Am Flight 103 is incalculable, yet each of those terrorist tragedies was carried out using conventional explosives technology." It is amazing that a country which can devote hundreds of millions of dollars on programs to identify and deal with chemical and biological agents cannot even agree to use marking devices in explosives (called taggants), which would greatly help authorities deal with the conventional weapons of mass destruction that unfortunately are being used in this country every year.

Still, the happy side of concentrating on prevention is that resources spend in this arena protect American citizens equally against the threats of both conventional and unconventional weapons of mass destruction. Identifying and stopping a plot to use a fertilizer bomb is just as gratifying and technically no different from identifying and stopping a plot to use sarin gas, since the event in question never actually occurs. Luckily, there has been considerable acknowledgement of the need for effective intelligence, assessment, and enforcement procedures to deal with domestic terrorism and foreign terrorism on American soil. After Oklahoma City, for instance, the FBI greatly expanded its domestic terrorism section. It has also encouraged the use of Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which combine the resources and abilities of federal, state, and local officials to deal most effectively with the threats posed to this country by would-be terrorists. It is clear that in terms of cost effectiveness as well as results, resources spend in such efforts are clearly resources well spent.

Yet there is much that can still be done. Moreover, expansion of our ability to detect and prevent terrorist acts before they occur does not necessarily revolve around encryption or wiretapping issues. The JTTF concept can be expanded to many more cities—and to regional areas as well, to cover rural parts of the country. Many states have effective intelligence gathering and threat assessment mechanisms, but many do not. Providing resources to ensure that all states can participate effectively in detection and prevention is a smart way to spend money. All of these areas, and more, are ways in which we can focus our efforts not on dealing with the damage wrought by terrorists bent on carnage and mayhem, but on stopping such catastrophes before they even occur.

Perhaps we need to be somewhat less alarmist and more realistic. The more people are afraid of wolves, the more boys there will be out there who will cry "Wolf!" Anthrax hoaxes, numbering in the hundreds, are the blatant evidence that we have been too afraid of these particular wolves. The consequences of a chem-bio attack could be horrible, but there are many factors which lower the probability of such an attack. A small infrastructure to deal with a potential attack, coupled with serious attention to intelligence and threat assessment efforts, might very well be a more intelligent response than alarm-raising and huge expenditures.

 

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