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Precautions Against Terrorists Focused on Biological Weapons

By Joby Warrick

and Joe Stephens

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

But the Sept. 11 attacks exposed deep flaws in the government’s thinking about the methods and reach of terrorists intent on mass destruction. Over the past few years, elaborate multi-agency planning exercises with flashy names such as “Red Ex” or “Dark Winter” have consumed vast resources, while experts urging preparations for a simpler, more conventional attack found it difficult to be heard.

A review of government records shows that most of the 201 federal planning exercises in the late 1990s were aimed at defending the public against biological and chemical attacks, even as multiple studies concluded that bombings, hijackings and other low-tech missions were far more likely.

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

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

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

Last week, Comptroller General David Walker called on federal agencies to make a coordinated effort to “prevent and deter threats to our homeland.”

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

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