Sptember 12, 2005
National Security Notes
OVER INVESTED IN ANTI-TERROR WIDGETS AND NOSTRUMS
IT'S EASY FOR TERRORISTS TO [FILL IN THE BLANK]
ODDS & ENDS
DISGRACEFUL PLANSWith the failures of the government in the response to Hurricane Katrina fresh in mind, a review of "Planning Scenarios -- Created for Use in National, Federal, State and Local Homeland Security Preparedness Activities," a document developed by DHS in July of 2004 is yet another eye-opener. It is another piece of evidence, a symptom if you will, of the national obsession with the imagination of apocalyptic terrorist assaults to the exclusion of many other things since 9/11.
"An upcoming Homeland Security Department report outlines a dozen frightening if hypothetical scenarios such as a terrorist nuclear attack or spreading plague in airport bathrooms to spur state and local preparedness against security risks," said the Associated Press in March of this year.
"Homeland Security 'has developed a number of scenarios that will aid federal, state and local homeland security officials in developing plans to become more prepared to prevent and respond to an act of terrorism, should it occur,'" said a DHS official for the wire service.
Although the report was released in error, everyone talked about it anyway. "It's not going to deter us from working closely with our state and local partners in fashioning these plans," said DHS head Michael Chertoff.
In any case, "Just because something [a nightmare terror attack] hasn't happened doesn't mean it couldn't happen." added CBS's Charles Osgood for "The Osgood File."
"Any number of awful things could happen," continued Osgood in Zen-like manner. "... and Michael Chertoff, our new secretary of homeland security, wants to make risk-based planning his central theme."
The New York Times, which broke the story on NSN's birthday, wrote, "The Department of Homeland Security, trying to focus antiterrorism spending better nationwide, has identified a dozen possible strikes it views as most plausible or devastating..." "By identifying possible attacks and specifying what government agencies should do to prevent, respond to and recover from them, Homeland Security is trying for the first time to define what 'prepared' means, officials said," continued the Times. In a repeated theme, a new day of risk-based emergency planning was said to be in the offing.
The Times called the planning document "extraordinarily detailed" and cited that it might be an "example of a Washington bureaucracy gone wild." In fact, as you will read, the document was nothing of the kind.
In matter of fact, there was very little emergency planning detail in it. It's major focus was in describing nightmare terror attack scenarios.
Others hailed "Planning Scenarios." "The [revelations] may be for the best. Americans should rest easier knowing that Homeland Security is planning how to prevent or cope with likely attacks..." wrote the Sarasota Herald Tribune. But examination of the document by the less breathless would have indicated there was very little substantive planning in it.
But you could "Pick your doomsday," wrote a reporter for the Kansas City Star. "Someone releases pneumonic plague at a sold-out ballpark, a busy airport and a train station? The guess is 2,500 killed."
"It gives us numbers of casualties and specific scenarios to plan for," said an emergency services planning official. "It gives the government a rationale to figure out how to spend its money most effectively," added an expert from the Heritage Foundation.
Plans, plans, and more plans.
Devised by the Homeland Security Council, the paper listed fifteen "scenarios" to assist in emergency management planning. These included a "Major Hurricane" although, as is the practice since 9/11, officials and journalists chose to focus on the exotic means of mass death.
This followed the skewed logic of "Planning Scenarios" which weighted its calculations of casualties toward terrorist attacks. These included, among others, the detonation of an atom bomb in a city, rolling anthrax attacks on multiple metropolitan centers, and chemical attacks employing chlorine and nerve gas. Even a cyber attack was envisioned, one that caused citizens to "lose faith" in the financial system. The document did not address a scenario in which citizens "lose faith" in their government because of a city-destroying natural disaster and the subsequent indolent emergency measures.
In any case, "Planning Scenario's" slant in "planning" is easiest to notice in deaths predicted to result from terrorist biological and chemical attack versus the act of nature, a hurricane.
A "major hurricane" of Category 5 (in another paragraph it refers to it as a Category 4, but to these planners -- 4 or 5, what's the difference?), informed the paper, kills 1,000 and requires 5,000 hospitalizations. However, a chlorine gas attack on a city is much more lethal, killing 17,500 and hospitalizing 100,000. A nerve gas attack kills 6,000. Plague as a biological weapon in the hands of the "Universal Adversary," the Orwellian term used by DHS to describe terrorists, slays 2,500 and hospitalizes 7,500 but anthrax, blown through multiple cities by trucks using "concealed improvised spraying device[s]" fells 13,000.
The DHS, for the document, is obsessed with anthrax. Powder anthrax resulted in five fatalities in the Amerithax incidents.
"For federal planning purposes, it will be assumed that the Universal Adversary (UA) will attack five separate metropolitan areas in a sequential manner. Three cities will be attacked initially, followed by two additional cities 2 weeks later," it reads. Not only does the document assume terrorists will attack multiple cities with impunity, it assumes they will "reload" and do it again.
Not only are cities attacked with anthrax, but also food -- beef and orange juice.
"The Universal Adversary delivers liquid anthrax bacteria to pre-selected [food] plant workers. At a beef plant in a west coast state, two batches of ground beef are contaminated with anthrax, with distribution to a city on the west coast, a southwest state, and a state in the northwest. At an orange juice plant in a southwestern state, three batches of orange juice are contaminated with anthrax, with distribution to a west coast city, a southwest city, and a northwest city."
It can be said that the probability of a terrorist attack using exotic weapons as described by the Department of Homeland Security is not zero. But while the probabilities are not absolutely zero, and in fact are extremely difficult to estimate, the chance of them happening is not anywhere near as logically defined, by expert sources -outside the government-, as a major hurricane striking a heavily populated coastline.
With regards to such issues, there is a complete disconnect within the DHS "Planning Scenarios" paper. Terrorist attacks within the planning document rely heavily upon simplistic assumptions and wild contrivances. The portion dealing with a major hurricane does not suffer from such scenario-concoction gone nuts. It is the opposite, an example of almost a complete lack of interest from within the substantial committee of advisors given the task of making it in shouldering the task of describing the risks and dangers associated with it.
The "extraordinary details" describing a major hurricane and emergency measures could fit on about two sheets of paper.
Some excerpts, comprising the central assumptions and substance of this:
"Tourists and residents in low-lying areas were ordered to evacuate 48 hours prior to projected landfall. Twenty-four hours prior to predicted landfall massive evacuations were ordered, and evacuation routes have been overwhelmed.
"Major portions of the [large city] become flooded..."
"Service disruptions are numerous. Shelters throughout the region are also filled to capacity. Hundreds of people are trapped and require search and rescue. Until debris is cleared, rescue operations are difficult because much of the area is reachable only by helicopters and boats. Wind and downed trees have damaged nearly all of the electric transmission lines within the [city]. Most communications systems within the impacted area are not functioning due to damage and lack of power.
"Thousands are homeless, and all areas are in serious need of drinking water, and food is in short supply and spoiling due to lack of refrigeration..."
The DHS, for this paper does not account for an astonishing and paralyzing number of the displaced and ruined and, of course, underestimates costs. Its description fits a brief synopsis someone could come up with for a TV disaster movie script in an afternoon. The complexity of undertakings and the nature of the disasters -- including an earthquakes and an attack by atomic weapon, are reduced to small clusters of single sentences.
After the hurricane, "Thousands of pets, domesticated animals, and wild animals have been killed or injured, and officials have been overwhelmed with requests for assistance in finding lost pets," informs the report without a hint of satire.
The report describes "Mission Areas" for the government and DHS to activate upon incidence of a Category 5 major hurricane. They are intelligence-insulting, given the resources available to the makers of the planning document.
"Some of the response actions require include search and rescue operations, mortuary services and victim identification, medical system support, debris clearance and management, temporary emergency power, transportation infrastructure support, infrastructure restoration, and temporary roofing," is written in a section entitled "Emergency Management/Response."
Under "Public Protection" -- "Public Protection Measures need to be taken to control [disease] vectors that may thrive in the areas after a catastrophic hurricane. Support will be required to maintain law and order and to protect private property. Support will be required to test and analyze health and safety hazards and implement measures to protect the public."
And last, under "Victim Care," "Care must include medical assistance; shelter and temporary housing assistance; emergency food, water, and ice provision; and sanitary facility provision." And that is, pretty much, all the DHS committee in charge wrote.
That's pretty much it.
If a high school student had submitted "Planning Scenarios" for a classroom civics course, being of no consequence, it would be excusable. A teacher might award it a B- for just being handed in on time. However, "Planning Scenarios" is not a high school civics class assignment. It is an example of federal government employees getting away with phoning it in, circulating crap on the taxpayer dime, and masquerading it as something useful in emergency planning and security, with the imprint of multiple august government agencies. The paper was put together by civil servants, from the "Homeland Security Council." The name under the title is David Howe, a DHS "Senior Director for Response and Planning."
An additional SEVENTY-TWO CONSULTING MEMBERS to "Planning Scenarios" were pulled from a host of federal agencies. These included six from the White House and two from FEMA and they are listed in the report's appendix. Interested readers should take a look.
OVER INVESTED IN ANTI-TERROR WIDGETS AND NOSTRUMS
In the past week, the mainstream media has ably discussed the United States' underinvestment in the storm levees of New Orleans. If more money had been spent to strengthen them, would it have made a difference to New Orleans? Maybe seems a safe answer.
But since 9/11, the nation has been obsessed with providing security against terror. It has constructed agencies filled with a Biblical horde of people whose job it is to pump out an regular stream of reports on potentials for terrorist attack and what should be done about them. It has furnished lavish funding for the development and staffing of laboratories around the country to devise protections against biological and chemical terrorism. It has tossed significant sums of money at inventors and scientists who promise to develop the latest widgets and nostrums in preventing terrorist attack.
The nation is overinvested in these efforts.
National Security Notes knows this because it has read countless stupefying reports on terrorism potentials underwritten by the government since 9/11. The national fixation on terrorism is bipartisan. Everyone has a share of it. And it has simply blown many other challenges of existence, such as consideration of large and small natural disasters and the misadventures of life in a technological society, completely off the table. It has created a din of alarming noise, over which many other things cannot be heard.
The easiest place to observe the bulging expenditure in this arena is to observe small matters, appearing in the news around the same time New Orleans was drowned by Katrina.
For instance, on September 3, the Mail Tribune newspaper of Medford, Oregon, told its readers of a new $150,000 anthrax sniffing machine for its mail center. "The machine, built by Northrop Grumman Corp. [a military contractor] and costing about $150,000, is being funded through a federal homeland-security grant," wrote the newspaper.
"If anthrax is detected ... the machine automatically contacts [the local mail director's] BlackBerry ... and notifies the U.S. Department of Homeland Security."
DHS would dispatch a special anti-anthrax unit "in two hours" and the installation would be "considered a hot zone by our first providers."
"In October 2001, TWO postal workers at the center that processes mail for Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., died after inhaling anthrax spores," continued the newspaper.
Using National Security Notes arithmetic, one hundred anthrax-sniffing machines, for example, cost fifteen million dollars.
On September 1, the American Chemical Society announced, "Detecting and identifying weapons of mass destruction is key to thwarting acts of terrorism. Researchers are scrambling to develop detection devices that quickly and accurately root out these weapons before they can be used. More than 40 presentations over five days will focus on the promise and challenges of these emerging technologies during the 230th national meeting of the American Chemical Society..."
Some of the forty innovations were given special attention. These included "regional sensors," developed by Clemson University and a business, to sniff "nerve agents, assess radiation levels and monitor weather conditions..."
Another innovation was to be delivered by scientists from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Here were even more sensors to detect "the presence of the bacteria that produce botulism, one of the world's most lethal substances." Called BEADS, for Biodetection Enabling Analyte Delivery System, it was said to also be applicable to multiple toxins, including ricin, and was being considered for its potential in commercial uses.
And still another set of widgets, again developed by PNNL, were promised to bring "a safe, fast and effective method for detecting and identifying plastic explosives and other non-metallic weapons," to help thwart the efforts of those like the London bombers.
Also on September 1, the Ft. Detrick Standard published a story entitled, "Vaccine for ricin toxin developed at Detrick lab." Although no terrorists have killed anyone during the war on terror with ricin, the articles informed that three ricin vaccines were either formulated or being developed in the United States.
"[Ricin] was ... at the center of a plot in London where suspected al-Qaeda members were trying to make it," wrote the Standard without adding that no ricin was found, just a small handful of castor beans in a jewelry case, and that no links to al Qaeda were proven during a very lengthy and open trial..
Ricin is easy to make and when that happens there is a lot of it, implied a scientist from Ft. Detrick involved in ricin vaccine work. No purified ricin has been found in the hands of al Qaeda members or domestic criminals arrested by the FBI, although dry castor mash has. And Porton Down scientists found for the London "ricin ring" trial that the poison was not present in great quantity in castor beans and that the methods taken off terrorists to purify it, in fact, do not. U.S. scientists, however, have used purified ricin in their multiple vaccine projects, killing rodents and monkeys in airtight boxes by spraying them with an aerosol of it.
The reader is not informed that there is no domestic population at any significant risk from ricin poisoning unless terrorists could somehow mass-market packets of castor seeds as a new and mouth-watering snack treat. But a ricin vaccine can be sold to the military, where servicemen could be required to take it. Or, it could simply be bought by the government and stockpiled.
Three ricin vaccines are being considered by the Joint Vaccine Acquisition Program "which has not yet picked the finalist for funding." That is, for funding on top of the taxpayer dough used to get them off the ground.
"Once a funding stream opens up for a vaccine like ricin, many pharmaceutical companies suddenly want to put their canoe in the water. That's good news," said a representative of the government's acquisition program. Yes, it is good news, because the pharmaceutical companies know that even if there is no market or demand for the vaccine, the government will pay for production of it with taxpayer dollars. It's astute business.
Take, as an example, the ricin vaccine of DOR Biopharma. It is one of the foundation products of this money-losing company. DOR Biopharma's work is underwritten by taxpayer dollars in the form of funding for the development of a ricin vaccine, and/or other nostrums like a botulinum toxin vaccine thought to be of use against bioterror.
For the second quarter of 2005, DOR posted a half million dollar loss, which its company press release indicates, is better than usual. Conservatively estimated, one can calculate that the taxpayer has been spending 2 million dollars a year for one ricin vaccine, in this case. Multiply that by three, for three ricin vaccines in the war on terror. Terrorists, it should be noted, have not even killed three people with ricin.
A cold but fair way of looking at this is to recognize it as a form of welfare for biodefense scientists. A few million here, a few million there, pretty soon you're talking real money.
Too many ricin vaccines or sensors and sniffers and kits small and large for anthrax or poisons, constitute a small slice from one week in a much larger world (see below for another slice) of widgets and nostrums that the nation has decided to fund, perhaps to its significant disadvantage. Would pulling back on the investment, canceling many such programs, or deciding there isn't a need to develop three ricin vaccines of limited utility, be a wise investment in the larger good? Maybe it would. Would the money be better spent addressing inequality and deprivation in the nation rather than duplicating make work for scientists? Is it best practice for the health of the nation to address what may be largely theoretical threats in the war on terror in ways that may never be of benefit to average Americans? These are hard questions. A critical reappraisal is warranted.
Embellishing notes, a selection of more widgets and nostrums advertised recently:
From the wire, on September 8: "George Mason University Receives $25 Million Federal Award For Construction of Regional Biocontainment Laboratory."
"The 83,154-square-foot facility will contain a biosafety level-3 laboratory for the development of techniques and products for detection, diagnosis, prevention and treatment of infectious diseases that either result from biological terrorism or arise naturally... Research will focus on diseases considered by the U.S. government to be potential bioterror threats, such as anthrax, tularemia and plague..."
It was said the award placed "the university among the elite institutions in the United States conducting this level of [bioterror] research." George Mason is the residing place of Ken Alibek, the Soviet defector who headed a substantial segement of that nation's off the books biological warfare effort.
"New method rapidly detects potential bioterrorism agent," transmitted the States News Service on September 6.
The information, released by the State Department, said that a Georgia Tech program using "A new combination of analytical chemistry and mathematical data analysis allows the rapid identification of the potential biological terrorism agent Coxiella burnetii, the bacterium that causes Q fever."
"Company gets $5.4 million more from U.S. government for continued development of [nostrum against anthrax called Anthim]," wrote the Medical Letter on CDC & FDA on September 4. "To date, [the company] Elusys has been awarded more than $20 million from the U.S. government for the development of therapeutics to combat bioterror agents."
And biochem terror escape hoods were bought for Colorado state legislators, reported the Rocky Mountain News on August 17. A DHS grant of $41,600 paid for them. "I don't think the Capitol is a target of any significance," said one legislator who added he thought he would probably get a defective hood if they were parceled out. But 400 emergency hoods, the number purchased, was deemed too low by others. "What about all the other folks - lobbyists, tour groups, school kids - who crowd the Capitol from January into May, while lawmakers are in session? They're apparently out of luck."
On August 15, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times related news of bioterror training plans and funding for teenagers.
"Since the Sept. 11 tragedy, billions of dollars have been disbursed to every corner of the United States to protect people, but there is no fail-safe place," read the article.
So Dr. James Mobley, "health director for San Patricio County and military bio-terrorism expert" has trained more than 1,000 teenagers "how to decontaminate people exposed to deadly chemicals or diseases" over the last fifteen years and was conducting a training exercise in a stadium to school the kids.
"Despite doling more than $19 million in federal Homeland Security funds in South Texas to enhance communication and multi-agency response to biological and chemical exposure, Corpus Christi officials say they are not prepared and may never be."
On August 10, the Times Union newspaper announced an Albany, New York, biological research center "[would] use a $9.1 million federal grant to develop better treatments for anthrax and plague" in case of bioterror. "The grant from the National Institutes of Health will fund work at the Ordway Research Institute Inc. for the next five years," said the newspaper.
The work would be to provide alternatives to antibiotics because, "It's very easy to make [anthrax and plague] resistant to the most common drugs," a scientist said. "It is well known that some rogue states have some collections of organisms that are resistant to the most commonly used drugs."
"If bioterrorists infect metro Atlantans with a potentially deadly disease, we're going to need more clipboards," wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 29. And emergency drill was held, apparently detecting shortages of many things, including clipboards. And "Under the scenario, 100,000 people attending the Dobbins Air Reserve Base air show in Marietta could have been infected with anthrax, which is fatal if not treated." The newspaper informed that state "has five-year, $36.5 million federal grants for training, personnel and supplies for prevention and preparation."
"We should all be reminded that the world we live in is not safe," said a civilian involved in the training.
On July 15, "Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Bioterrorism Subcommittee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said Thursday he believes a major outbreak of disease, whether deliberate or accidental, is inevitable in the United States," for a wire news report.
"...Congress needed to write legislation to improve readiness in the event of such an act and outlined the need to protect the nation's food supply, strengthen health infrastructure and increase resources to stockpile bioterrorism countermeasures," it was said. The food supply must be made safe, emergency response capabilities improved, homina-homina, and "we must provide the resources necessary to meet possible bioterrorism threats directly."
IT'S EASY FOR TERRORISTS TO [FILL IN THE BLANK]
The media has done a thorough job reporting on the disaster in New Orleans and surrounding area. It has asked hard questions of the government.
However, when dealing with potential problems, like the threats posed by terrorists, it has an extremely poor track record. It does not ask hard questions of anyone. It simply acts as a conduit for the delivery of nightmare claims. Employing a Nexis search, National Security Notes was able to quickly find around one hundred stories devoted to spreading permutations from the last two years containing some fashion of the assumption or assertion that "it's easy for terrorists" to bring on calamity using a multitude of plans and practices.
Rail road yard security is a joke, it's easy for terrorists to walk right in. .50 caliber sniper rifles, powerful enough to shoot down airplanes...are easy for terrorists to acquire [but even easier for Americans to acquire]. It's [still] too easy for terrorists to get across the border. A new driver's license bill is bad because it makes it easy for terrorists to have them. A blackout reveals how easy it might be for terrorists to knock down electrical grid. Colorado is vulnerable to terror because federal focus on big cities has made it easy for terrorists to strike in landlocked states. It is easy for terrorists to contaminate water so [a scientist's] new sensor system is a necessity. Be alert for farm terror because it is easy for the enemy to strike there. [A state] [leads or lags] in bioterror readiness and it's a matter for concern because it is easy for terrorists ... Assume a bioterror attack is coming because it is easy for terrorists...
By themselves, they occasionally appear lucid and reasonable. Pile them together and the aggregate is astonishing. The message is everything is vulnerable and terrorists are capable of anything. Because of one terrible day and the cliche "9/11 changed everything," devastating terrorist strikes have been theorized as transferable to almost any imaginable attack scenario.
After National Security Notes read a stack of these articles, it thought for a moment it was in the wrong business and should devote a couple months and publications to predicting the ways in which terrorists could attack. Terrorists could imitate the methodology of the Washington sniper and his accomplices. Why haven't they? Terrorists could go into the forests and high chaparrals of southern California during fire season and ignite calamitous blazes, making national news and sewing panic. Local arsonists do it. It would be easy for terrorists. Gang members from central Los Angeles shoot into cars on the freeways. Surely that would be easy for terrorists...
It's a good game. It needs to take no account of what terrorists are actually doing, no knowledge of what tough to get human intelligence sources and materials may show, or historically -- what preferences, capabilities, experiences and limitations terrorists carry with them. It can assume that there are more terrorists expertly trained in many degrees and methods of mayhem and working themselves into place than there are actual terrorists. For the anti-terrorism effort, it is only necessary to assign a simple universality to fragility and vulnerability and degrees of omniscience and unlimited resources to the adversary. It is easy, so to speak, to think of things that are easy for terrorists to do.
More recently, in mid-summer, major news stories were discussing the idea that a single terrorist could kills hundreds of thousands of Americans by contaminating the milk supply with botulinum toxin. There would be mass death and injury and and this was known because, fundamentally, the figures were determined by a series of calculations. In contrast, the death toll from Katrina has been extremely difficult to ascertain, because the sheer complexity of the situation does not conveniently fit any set of equations. Terror calculations don't suffer such hindrances.
In any case, there was very little questioning of the reasoning that led to the conclusion that botox poisoning could bring a Biblical doom upon the land. Built initially upon extremely shaky assertions in the opinion pages of the New York Times, botulinum toxin could either be made by following the instructions in a jihadist paper on the subject downloaded from the Internet, or simply bought from a black-market lab. Consider it ACME Botulinum, Inc.
If one looks at an article published for the August/September edition of the American Journalism Review, one found a lamenting over the lack of good journalism on homeland security. But in the first few paragraphs, the article promptly fell into the same type of reporting it purported to criticize. The review delivered a titillating and speculative disaster porn scenario, trotting out a reporter to furnish claims about how easy it would be for a terrorist to kill -- again thousands -- by sabotaging a tank of anhydrous ammonia at a chemical plant.
"This particular killer goes for the eyeballs and turns skin into a gooey mass. Respiratory systems are paralyzed by excruciating pain," wrote the publication. "...thousands of people would have died. I have no doubt of that," said a journalist who was a source.
And "To attack [America's electrical] grid, a terrorist need only study publicly available trade journals, which explain where new facilities are constructed," again cried an op-ed piece in the New York Times on August 13. "A terrorist could then disable a particular system by destroying the computers and relays housed in the poorly protected building."
Article after article can be found warning of dire consequences. No publication is too small, no facet of life too obscure.
The publication Arkansas Business, for example, furnished warning about attacks on rice.
"It would be very easy for terrorists to introduce anthrax or even something as simple as rat poison into rice being exported to the United States," said a rice businessman for the paper.
"A shipload of contaminated rice, distributed throughout the nation, would be a security nightmare, creating not only a panic but possibly an economic meltdown." (The subtext: Buy American grown rice, as only it can be guaranteed to be inspected, pure and clean.)
In any case, the hot button issue is again anthrax, the ultimate weapon, as has already been read, possibly to be blown through cities, worked into beef, poured into fruit juice, or also distributed in bags of rice.
And if not anthrax-tainted rice, how about lunches for school children?
At the end of July, USA Today ran with the brief "School lunches a terrorist target? USDA calls meals 'particularly vulnerable'". "Currently, authorities are looking at how a popular lunchroom staple, chicken nuggets, may be susceptible to tampering," wrote the newspaper. "Federal officials have distributed a food safety checklist to school lunch providers, who must show evidence of a food safety plan..."
Catastrophe-causing poisoning materials for terrorists are apparently available off the shelf everywhere, too, their capability facile.
"Robert Buchanan, a senior science adviser with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said mounting an attack on the food system would not require a great deal of knowledge or sophistication, and the result could be catastrophic," wrote the Birmingham Post-Herald in July in the article, "Experts say food supply could be hit."
"The number of biological or chemical agents that could be used in an attack [is huge]," said the government advisor to the reporter. "I'm amazed how many agents are available over the Internet."
It's a stunning statement. Get your bioterror agents on the Internet. Look for the web portals of Anthraxazon.COM. and toxins from TerrorBay, payable online through PayPal. "...ricin [is] a toxin easily made from castor beans," added the article.
"I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do," former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson said in December of 2004. The quote would be repeated throughout the media into 2005 on stories about the ease with which Americans could be sickened through "easy" attacks on foodstocks.
Looking back to 2003, the story -- or, more accurately, script, was the same -- only the names delivering it changed.
Associated Press, in a regional article from Missouri on December 6 of that year: "For U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, it's a nightmare scenario - terrorists taking advantage of Missouri's lonesome back roads to infect cattle with biological agents that could devastate herds, rock farm markets and perhaps kill people consuming tainted meat ... The nightmare could come true, Talent said ... It seems almost absurdly easy for a terrorist to tamper with [the] food system."
The point of this article was not really about sounding an alarm on a threat. It was about making a noise to attract government funding.
"Talent [was] working with the [University of Missouri] to submit a proposal for making the university the home of one of two planned national centers for agroterrorism, underwritten by the federal Department of Homeland Security," states the article. "Federal investment in such a center could run to 'tens of millions of dollars a year'...'"
Repeatedly, a feature of "easy for terrorists" news stories is the portrayal or prediction of nightmare and catastrophe. The terrorists have instant access to materials, vulnerabilities and critical information. Still another recurring meme is that terrorists can download their capabilities from the Internet. As we have read before, lethality is readily available from the Internet.
For example, ricin recipes, primarily copies of one method that does nothing but grind castor beans, abound on the Internet. Yet it is an article of faith that terrorists can make use of them in some manner.
The mid-summer botox in the nation's milk story also had an Internet component. For the New York Times first, and other news organizations later, the capability -- the way to make the toxin -- could be downloaded from the Internet in a 24-page jihadi paper. On August 7, the meme surfaced in the Washington Post. That paper, in a story on the front page wrote, "Among other things, al Qaeda and its offshoots are building a massive and dynamic online library of training materials." As proof, the newspaper offered a couple of examples. One was said to be a 15-page electronic document that purported to encourage a capability in making and using plague as a biological weapon, the newspaper referring to the causative organism, Yersinia pestis, as a virus, which it is not. The second instance was another jihadi document, a "poisoner's handbook" that purported to show to make "betaluminium," a corruption of the word -botulism-. The newspaper was criticized for striving to create the impression that a jihadi document which contained nothing but rubbish and mistakes was a "training material" al Qaeda agents could use in their war on the United States.
The question the newspaper never saw fit to answer was, "If terrorist training material is worth less than a roll of toilet paper, is it still terrorist training material and what is it training them in?"
In these cases, a conceit was delivered that applications in biological or chemical weaponry can be attained or taught in 15-page or 24-documents. Any brief document will seem to do, really, as long as it is found in the hands of Islamists and/or downloaded from the Internet.
To put the foolishness of this idea in perspective, ask yourself the following question: If you download two hundred scientific papers on botulism from on-line scientific libraries, does it make you a scientist with cross-discipline training or experience in microbial applications and/or the preparation of very dangerous proteins? Put another way (and National Security Notes lifts this one from a recent issue of the New York Times magazine), if NSN reads a pile of papers on open heart surgery, would you allow it to perform coronary bypass surgery on you?
Well, yes, anything like that is possible in the world of newspaper homeland security and terror journalism.
On August 31, the San Diego Union Tribune repeated the conceit, publishing an article that asked readers to again accept that claim. To deliver plans for the botox doomsday all that was necessary was "Internet digging."
An expert was produced to say that a business professor at Stanford -- "with no training in either toxicology or microbiology," had done it. All "found just by digging around on the Internet."
Nightmare and horrors, just from surfing around on the Internet. Substantial technical obstacles bypassed in difficult subjects which challenge even the brightest and most skilled, either by web surfing for documents or by simply buying something off-the-shelf or -over-the-counter through terror ecommerce. No experience necessary! Just a connection and some time. It reads like a familiar script and is commonly found distributed by the US newsmedia, which suspends its natural skepticism in such instances, as long as claims can be delivered by experts, claims which cannot easily be tested.
Of course, that is what experts are for. The experts have already worked things out, have already tiger-teamed, have already tested and probed and brainstormed the terror suppositions and delivered their wisdom. It's a Catch-22.
This brings into focus another feature of "it's easy for terrorists" news reporting: There is no shortage of people who can be lined up to claim anything or support any attack premise, no matter how exceptional or in defiance of common sense. "We weren't going to tell the whole world how easy [botox doom] was," said James Coughlin, a food-industry consultant, to the San Diego Union-Tribune. The expert "helped brainstorm terrorism threats for the federal government."
Such assertions litter terror and homeland security reporting, generally burnishing and embellishing the "easy for terrorists" theme.
In the matter of assertions generally and with regards to opinion sections of newsmedia like the New York Times, David Shipley, editor of that papers Op-Ed page, wrote a column in late summer, in an attempt to shed light on the thinking that goes into delivering them. "We also check assertions," stated Shipley. If news articles -- from the Times and other publications are at odds with a point or an example in an essay, we need to resolve whatever discrepancy exists." Someone just can't say something out of the blue, explained the piece.
Most readers of the print news, those who possess some common sense, would laugh out loud at such a statement. Op-ed sections, including Shipley's, make assertions that are dodgy. It's a very human practice that isn't bought out of simply by insisting that it isn't done. The Times published that a 24-page jihadi manual could be used to make botox that would form a foundation for killing tens, maybe hundreds of thousands , earlier in the summer. It perhaps counted on the fact that no one would actually check the assertion and go to the trouble of reading the manual. If you did, you found you had to pay $100 to its archivist to get a copy of it, a detail that readers were not informed of. In any case, once you had the manual it was clear it did not explain the intricacies of getting Clostridium botulinum and the working up of botox doom.
Hard news sections of big newspapers are not immune to similar assertions. The Washington Post tacitly made one on August 7, in its front page feature story. Again, the existence of the electronic document, a manual containing a recipe for "betaluminium," was set as an example of a capability, perhaps something that could be used by al Qaeda to provide training in poisoning. Easy! Just download and train away! Of course, it wasn't true but it was delivery of the common script, one better suited for entertainment, perhaps a TV show like "24."
This is not to say that terrorists have no capability or that they may not someday attain it. But these are complex issues, hard to even adequately describe in lengthy papers or discussions. Fraught with uncertainty and containing no easy answers, they cannot be condensed into pithy one-sentence claims that serve to titillate, or frighten, or purport to ring the warning bell about an urgent and deadly problem. Indeed, good bullshit detectors should sound when such things appear.
On the other hand, while such news often departs from reality, it generates its own truth and consequences by filtering into reports delivered by expert government, corporate and academic agencies. The action of this process as well as the close uncritical embracing of it dissipates organization into thousands of efforts going in different directions, reducing security to a chaotic scramble for money by crowds of experts and officials, all trying to paint scary scenarios because the more forbidding the manner of doom the easier it is to command attention.
"Easy for terrorists" news articles are regularly employed to stand up debate, win points and drive anti-terror action by the government. For example, the belief that ricin can be easily purified in your kitchen has essentially put a couple young American men who appear to be, at best, petty nuisances, behind bars for anywhere from two to fifteen years for possessing nothing more than small amounts of pulverized castor seeds.
Such collections of news stories and claims frequently lead to hearings, policy, entrenched beliefs, and funding of no immediately visible benefit to average Americans. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to put forward the distinctly not radical idea that given the recent national and local failures in the face of catastrophe, the needy would still take it in the shorts if all that was claimed to be very insecure to terrorists was made secure.
The packaging and delivery of "easy for terrorists" scripts destroy careful deliberation. They inspire a conception that everything must be secured and that nothing is secure. They lead to the perception or even conviction that the work of battening down the nation will never be over. They foster belief that it is rational and healthy to be in fear because everyone is threatened, "the world is not a safe place," and maniacs can and will attack fruit juice, school lunches in Iowa, chicken nuggets or tubs of cafeteria spaghetti. Children must be trained to in the wearing of hazmat suits and the disinfecting of the contaminated and there will never be enough money spent -- locally, regionally or nationally -- to bring peace of mind. Nothing is beyond the Universal Adversary.
ODDS & ENDS
From seat-belts to bioterror preparedness: In a story in the Contra Costa Times on July 15, a new official "overseeing bioterrorism policy at the Homeland Security Department" was installed, it was reported. Jeffrey Runge, formerly the administrator of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, where he "pushed for increased seat belt use and ... pressed states to enact laws that allow police to stop motorists solely for not wearing seat belts" was made the bioterror administrator. No problem, he can probably learn bioterrorism the same place the terrorists are reported to -- by digging around on the Internet.
Clay Detlefson, vice president ofregulatory affairs and counsel of the International Dairy Foods Association, wrote an editorial for the Cheese Market News entitled "Dairy industry vigilant in addressing food security." Sadly, it was unfairly ignored during the outcry over the publication of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper on botox in milk.
"To get the facts about milk security to the media, the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and Dairy Management Inc.(DMI) prepared a joint statement that outlined some reasons why the [Lawrence M. Wein botox in milk] scenario was highly unlikely. What you didn't see in the newspaper or on TV were the efforts the dairy industry made behind the scenes to correct the misperceptions we feared the Wein paper might raise and -- more broadly -- the extensive work that has already been done to address security issues," wrote Detlefson.
"...the dairy industry welcomes scientific research that is aimed at helping our nation secure its vital systems," wrote Detlefson, adding that the botox threat paper was not such an example. Detlefson continued that the industry had looked at identifying threats to milk soon after 9/11. It worked quietly and "without fanfare" to secure milk production.
The original from Cheese Market News:
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