TCS Daily

To Deal With the Unimaginable, Defend at Home and Attack Abroad

By Melana Zyla Vickers - September 17, 2001 12:00 AM

Before the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, terrorists using aircraft as giant fuel bombs were the stuff of paperback thrillers and the imagination. Which is precisely why the United States should now endeavor to prepare for other horrifying attacks that the imagination can conjure up.

This attack was by air. The terrorist bombing of the USS Cole was by sea. The U.S. embassy attacks in Africa were by land. Future attacks might be more advanced still -- the introduction of a pernicious, deadly organism or chemical, perhaps. A missile attack. Or the disabling of vital information technology -- our e-mail, our 911 numbers, or systems behind our stock exchanges, air-traffic controls or electrical and fuel plants.

In February, the Defense Science Board fleshed out how close the United States is to facing such threats. Among its observations:

  • Iraq has stockpiled at least three biological toxins for war purposes.

  • Russia's biological warfare program, elements of which are potentially for sale, has created enough anthrax to kill the world's population four times over.

  • The U.S. healthcare system has no excess capacity with which to produce vaccines that would be needed to control the spread of a biological attack.

  • Computer viruses can contaminate over 1 million computers in five hours.

  • At least 20 countries are developing tools to attack computer-based infrastructure.

  • The U.S. is not prepared for such attacks now, despite politicians' pledges to gird the nation after the first World Trade Center bombing and subsequent terrorism. There have been numerous studies of "homeland defense," such as the Defense Science Board's, but little action.

    Yet some steps no longer need to be discussed. They need to be taken - in this budget cycle:

    1. Counter-terrorism efforts by the FBI and other agencies need to be stepped up so that terrorist cells within the United States are flushed out. This war at home would be no different from Britain's struggle with the IRA or European countries' drive against communist terrorist groups such as the Red Brigade during the Cold War.

    2. National Guardsmen must be trained, vaccinated, and equipped with protective gear so that they're able to deal with a massive domestic attack and contain its effects.

    3. Hospitals, public-health organizations and labs should be able to coordinate their efforts nationally. The institutions need to be prepared for a surge in patients in the event of an attack. Databases of potential pathogens and treatments for them need to be generated and coordinated. Only in this way can any attacks be mitigated and contained.

    4. Airport security should be tightened, so that not only passengers -- but also airport personnel -- are more tightly scrutinized.

    5. Responses to computer viruses and government-business cooperation on computer security should advance more quickly.

    6. Missile defenses must be built and deployed.

    To be sure, it will be impossible to shield the nation hermetically. That's not least because our open society's tolerance of tightened security won't be limitless -- Americans will chafe at restrictions on their freedom. For example, in recent years American companies and civil-libertarians have loudly resisted cooperating with counter-terrorism agencies, opposing their databases, coordination efforts, e-mail-trawling technologies such as Carnivore and international-communications monitoring efforts such as Echelon. Such opposition, while sometimes warranted, needs now to be rethought for the public good.

    Even if all these steps are taken, though, they won't be enough. They must be matched by a sustained U.S. military response overseas to eradicate terrorists and their bases, eliminate their safe havens, and deter future attacks by inflicting punishment for Sept. 11's attacks.

    This is war.

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