Wednesday, March 16, 2005

U.S. Report Lists Possibilities for Terrorist Attacks and Likely Toll

The New York Times
March 16, 2005
U.S. Report Lists Possibilities for Terrorist Attacks and Likely Toll

WASHINGTON, March 15 - 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, including detonation of a nuclear device in a major city, release of sarin nerve agent in office buildings and a truck bombing of a sports arena.

The document, known simply as the National Planning Scenarios, reads more like a doomsday plan, offering estimates of the probable deaths and economic damage caused by each type of attack.

They include blowing up a chlorine tank, killing 17,500 people and injuring more than 100,000; spreading pneumonic plague in the bathrooms of an airport, sports arena and train station, killing 2,500 and sickening 8,000 worldwide; and infecting cattle with foot-and-mouth disease at several sites, costing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. Specific locations are not named because the events could unfold in many major metropolitan or rural areas, the document says.

The agency's objective is not to scare the public, officials said, and they have no credible intelligence that such attacks are planned. The department did not intend to release the document publicly, but a draft of it was inadvertently posted on a Hawaii state government Web site.

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.

That will help decide how billions of federal dollars are distributed in the future. Cities like New York that have targets with economic and symbolic value, or places with hazardous facilities like chemical plants could get a bigger share of agency money than before, while less vulnerable communities could receive less.

"We live in a world of finite resources, whether they be personnel or funding," said Matt A. Mayer, acting executive director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness at the Homeland Security Department, which is in charge of the effort.

President Bush requested the list of priorities 15 months ago to address a widespread criticism of Homeland Security from members of Congress and antiterrorism experts that it was wasting money by spreading it out instead of focusing on areas or targets at greatest risk. Critics also have faulted the agency for not having a detailed plan on how to eliminate or reduce vulnerabilities.

Michael Chertoff, the new secretary of homeland security, has made it clear that this risk-based planning will be a central theme of his tenure, saying that the nation must do a better job of identifying the greatest threats and then move aggressively to deal with them.

"There's risk everywhere; risk is a part of life," Mr. Chertoff said in testimony before the Senate last week. "I think one thing I've tried to be clear in saying is we will not eliminate every risk."

The goal of the document's planners was not to identify every type of possible terrorist attack. It does not include an airplane hijacking, for example, because "there are well developed and tested response plans" for such an incident. Planners included the threats they considered the most plausible or devastating, and that represented a range of the calamities that communities might need to prepare for, said Marc Short, a department spokesman. "Each scenario generally reflects suspected terrorist capabilities and known tradecraft," the document says.

To ensure that emergency planning is adequate for most possible hazards, three catastrophic natural events are included: an influenza pandemic, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake in a major city and a slow-moving Category 5 hurricane hitting a major East Coast city.

The strike possibilities were used to create a comprehensive list of the capabilities and actions necessary to prevent attacks or handle incidents once they happen, like searching for the injured, treating the surge of victims at hospitals, distributing mass quantities of medicine and collecting the dead.

Once the White House approves the plan, which could happen within the next month, state and local governments will be asked to identify gaps in fulfilling the demands placed upon them by the possible strikes, officials said.

No terrorist groups are identified in the documents. Instead, those responsible for the various hypothetical attacks are called Universal Adversary.

The most devastating of the possible attacks - as measured by loss of life and economic impact - would be a nuclear bomb, the explosion of a liquid chlorine tank and an aerosol anthrax attack.

The anthrax attack involves terrorists filling a truck with an aerosolized version of anthrax and driving through five cities over two weeks spraying it into the air. Public health officials, the report predicts, would probably not know of the initial attack until a day or two after it started. By the time it was over, an estimated 350,000 people would be exposed, and about 13,200 would die, the report predicts.

The emphasis on casualty predictions is a critical part of the process, because Homeland Security officials want to establish what kinds of demands these incidents would place upon the public health and emergency response system.

"The public will want to know very quickly if it is safe to remain in the affected city and surrounding regions," the anthrax attack summary says. "Many persons will flee regardless of the public health guidance that is provided."

Even in some cases where the expected casualties are relatively small, the document lays out extraordinary economic consequences, as with a radiological dispersal device, known as a "dirty bomb." The planning document predicts 540 initial deaths, but within 20 minutes, a radioactive plume would spread across 36 blocks, contaminating businesses, schools, shopping areas and homes, as well as transit systems and a sewage treatment plant.

The authors of the reports have tried to make each possible attack as realistic as possible, providing details on how terrorists would obtain deadly chemicals, for example, and what equipment they would be likely to use to distribute it. But the document makes clear that "the Federal Bureau of Investigation is unaware of any credible intelligence that indicates that such an attack is being planned."

Even so, local and state governments nationwide will soon be required to collaboratively plan their responses to these possible catastrophes. Starting perhaps as early as 2006, most communities would be expected to share specially trained personnel to handle certain hazardous materials, for example, instead of each city or town having its own unit.

To prioritize spending nationwide, communities or regions will be ranked by population, population density and an inventory of critical infrastructure in the region.

The communities in the first tier, the largest jurisdictions with the highest-value targets, will be expected to prepare more comprehensively than other communities, so they would be eligible for more federal money.

"We can't spend equal amounts of money everywhere," said Mr. Mayer, of the Homeland Security Department.

To some, the extraordinarily detailed planning documents in this effort - like a list of more than 1,500 distinct tasks that might need to be performed in these calamities - are an example of a Washington bureaucracy gone wild.

"The goal has to be to get things down to a manageable checklist," said Gary C. Scott, chief of the Campbell County Fire Department in Gillette, Wyo., who has served on one of the many advisory committees helping create the reports. "This is not a document you can decipher when you are on a scene. It scared the living daylights out of people." But federal officials and some domestic security experts say they are convinced that this is a threshold event in the national process of responding to the 2001 attacks.

"Our country is at risk of spending ourselves to death without knowing the end site of what it takes to be prepared," said David Heyman, director of the homeland security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research organization. "We have a great sense of vulnerability, but no sense of what it takes to be prepared. These scenarios provide us with an opportunity to address that."