Terrorist and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Are We Ready?
Aired December 1, 2001 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: So many fears.
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DR. D.A. HENDERSON, FEDERAL OFFICE OF PUBLIC HEALTH PREPAREDNESS: You couldn't smell it. You couldn't see it. You wouldn't know that it was there.
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ANNOUNCER: So many possibilities.
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BILL DEE, SARIN EXPERT: Once it's produced, it's not particularly hard to handle.
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ANNOUNCER: So many misconceptions.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel very comfortable with the security that I have seen in major food processing plants.
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ANNOUNCER: From agriterrorism to nerve gas, sizing up the terrorist threat: What's real, what's not, and are we ready?
WILLOW BAY, HOST: Welcome to CNN PRESENTS. I'm Willow Bay.
There probably isn't anyone in America who hasn't been affected on some level by the events of September 11; by the lingering fears or the ongoing threat. Even as the nation turns its attention to the holidays, many continue to ask: What next?
But is such anxiety truly warranted? In this hour: separating fact from fiction, reality from rumor, in a diagnosis of the credible threats to the security of this country and the safety of U.S. citizens.
We begin with CNN's David Mattingly. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you want me to pull out any of the injuries at this time?
DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A small nuclear bomb, hidden in a van, explodes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Stay back from the area. Stay back from the area.
MATTINGLY: The bomb was not real. There were no victims, just people playing dead or injured in a training exercise.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, it just exploded.
MATTINGLY: For years, government officials have been creating such mock terrorist strikes, testing the readiness of local, state and federal agencies. Last year, there was Top-Off, so named because top federal officials participated.
The exercise was made all the more real with the creation of a virtual news network.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are the mustard and plague attacks connected to a global terrorist organization? Those stories and more, next on VNN.
MATTINGLY: Top-Off focused on two types of attacks. In New Hampshire, the terrorist weapon was chemical; mustard gas released in a car bombing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Once the toxin has entered through the skin, there is no antidote for this.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Fifty-one bodies remain on the dock 31 hours after the explosion that rocked...
MATTINGLY: The Federal Emergency Management Agency's operations center monitor the scenario in New Hampshire and a simultaneous exercise out West.
In Denver, exercise participants reacted after terrorists unleashed a biological weapon.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Emergency officials report up to 255 people are now dead from the pneumonic plague.
MARK MERSHON, FBI SPECIAL AGENT: The people who are sick either attended, or were in the company of somebody who attended an opera event.
MATTINGLY: A nuclear strike in D.C., a chemical attack in New Hampshire, a biological assault in Denver. Officials took seriously these what-if scenarios; even a few believed such terror could ever occur on U.S. soil. Now the world has changed. Preparing for the next attack is no longer about community play-acting, but an immediate matter of life and death. The threat is not what if, but what may be next.
BAY: Preventing disaster and facing up to the threats, whether nuclear, chemical or biological. Coming up: How a few proactive steps could head off a serious bio-threat.
BAY: The use of anthrax as a weapon in the United States has fueled fears and filled headlines. But anthrax isn't the biological threat keeping experts awake at night. A smallpox outbreak could put many in the nation at risk. The virus is highly contagious, and most Americans would be extremely vulnerable.
CNN's Rhonda Rowland sizes up the risks and the efforts to head off an old enemy, prompting new concern.
HENDERSON: You couldn't smell it. You couldn't see it. You wouldn't know that it was there; and then the rash begins.
RHONDA ROWLAND, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Dr. D.A. Henderson is talking about a smallpox attack. As head of the new Federal Office of Public Health Preparedness, it's one of the diseases he's preparing to fight, in case a terrorist uses the virus as a weapon.
HENDERSON: We really feel that this is not a highly likely event, but then, of course, we did not think that anyone was going to fly a loaded airliner into the World Trade Center.
ROWLAND: Henderson has taken on smallpox before and won. In the mid-1960s, the World Health Organization hired him to lead an ambitious campaign to rid the world of the disease that killed 300 million people in the 20th century; death that often came in gruesome fashion.
After a bout of severe flu-like symptoms, the patient breaks out in a rash. The rash becomes pus-filled boils, which spread across the skin -- thousands of them.
HENDERSON: It's a painful disease. The patient feels absolutely miserable, has difficulty eating, swallowing, drinking, and one-third of the patients die.
ROWLAND: For the two-thirds who survive, disfigurement may be permanent. Many are left blind.
To this day, Henderson remembers a 1975 outbreak and visiting a hospital filled with dying patients. HENDERSON: There's a peculiar odor, which is indescribable. And I was with a British physician, who had spent a long time in Africa, and he leaned over the railing at that point, and he said, "I cannot do that again. I cannot go through a ward like that again. This is the most horrible disease that there ever was."
ROWLAND: Smallpox spreads easily just from coughing near others. One case quickly became 10.
The key to breaking the chain of infection was surveillance. Health workers, themselves immunized, asked villagers if they had seen anyone with the symptoms, then race to vaccinate those who had been in contact with the patient.
By building a ring of immunity around the infected area, they eventually starved the disease of the human hosts it needed to survive.
HENDERSON: It was a really difficult effort during those 11 years, and we just barely succeeded, finally, in eradicating it. But the last case occurred on October 26, 1977.
ROWLAND: That was not, however, the last of the virus. While Henderson's army of health workers was struggling to eliminate smallpox, the Soviet Union was secretly working to turn it into a weapon. It was a betrayal of the Kremlin's public physician renouncing biological weapons, exposed by a top scientist, who later defected to the U.S.
KEN ALIBEK, FORMER SOVIET SCIENTIST: When the Soviet Union realized that there was no protection against smallpox anymore -- nobody was vaccinated anymore, and there was no protection -- smallpox became a very potent and very effective weapon.
ROWLAND: Even when the bio-weapons program shut down after the Cold War, Henderson and others worried Soviet scientists might have sold their secrets, and even some of the virus to other governments, and that it could make its way into the hands of terrorists.
HENDERSON: Can they buy the material smallpox, and in a form that it could be used? I don't see why not.
ROWLAND (on camera): There is still a powerful weapon against smallpox. It's the vaccine. If you are vaccinated within four days of being infected, you won't get sick. And widespread immunization can stop an outbreak. That's how the World Health Organization attacked smallpox a generation ago, and that's how doctors would cope with a terrorist attack today.
(voice-over): But right now, the federal government has only 15 million doses, not nearly enough to handle multiple outbreaks from a terror attack.
JONATHAN TUCKER, MONTEREY INSTITUTE: In fact, the government might need to impose martial law if people became panicked, because if people start, for example, running for the hills, they are just going to spread the disease further in an uncontrolled way.
ROWLAND: To address the vaccine shortage, scientists are diluting it and inoculating volunteers.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just touch it to the skin like so.
ROWLAND: And experiment to learn whether the 15 million doses can be stretched to 75 million. And the government has accelerated its timetable to stockpile more; 300 million doses in the next year, enough to vaccinate every person in the country if necessary.
HENDERSON: I think within a very short period of time we'll be fully confident that we have enough vaccine to deal with smallpox wherever it occurs.
ROWLAND: It's impossible to measure the risk of a smallpox attack with precision. On the one hand, a terrorist may value the rugged virus for its brutal impact. On the other hand, smallpox, as a bio-weapon, could backfire if contagious victims carried the virus overseas.
TUCKER: The downside is that smallpox is not a targetable weapon, so that a terrorist group would run the risk that eventually this disease could come back to haunt them or the people they claim to represent.
ROWLAND: Many public health experts believe the risk of a smallpox attack is not large enough to resume the routine vaccinations of years past. That's because complications, though rare, can be severe. But they want the vaccine available in case of an emergency.
HENDERSON: Nevertheless, however much we are prepared, it's going to be a heroic task to stop the disease quickly.
ROWLAND: If that day comes, success will depend on the ability of doctors to recognize the symptoms and sound the alarm. Early detection and quick response beat the disease the first time, and may be our best hope if the next outbreak is manmade.
BAY: Just ahead on CNN PRESENTS: chemical weapons and terror; it's happened before.
BAY: The use of bioterror caught America off guard and unprepared, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the U.S. should not be so naive when it comes to the possibility of a chemical strike -- terrorists have used chemical weapons in the past.
As CNN's Mike Boettcher reports, it's a reality that serves not only to alarm, but also to reassure.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a typical rush hour, the Tokyo subway system is packed. Because it's a confined public space, it's an attractive target for terrorists. And so it was on March 20, 1995.
Members of a doomsday religious cult spread sarin, a powerful nerve agent on five trains heading to one of the city's busiest stations. Twelve people died. Many hundreds became ill. Thousands were terrorized.
(on camera): The cult behind the attack was called Aum Shinrikyo, which means "supreme truth." It's doubtful the group had found the path to enlightenment, but there is no doubt it had sent a supremely truthful message to authorities the world over: You are vulnerable to a chemical attack.
DEE: Once it's produced, it's not particularly hard to handle.
BOETTCHER (voice-over): Bill Dee became an expert on sarin, overseeing the design of chemical weapons for the U.S. Army until a 1990 treaty banned them.
DEE: It's predominantly an inhalation hazard, and so if you protect your respiratory tract, you've done -- you're protecting yourself pretty well.
BEOTTCHER: Sarin is a chemical cousin to many insecticides, known as organal phosphates, and that's how it was discovered.
In 1936, a German scientist working on pesticides found that the compounds disrupt nerve impulses. A few deep breaths, and the victim shuts down in agony.
DEE: It's something that's been around from the 1930s on. Secrets aren't kept that long. The information is there and available on how to do it. It would take a competent chemist to do it, but that's about all. You would need a competent chemist.
BOETTCHER: The Aum Shinrikyo cult worked on sarin from its compound in the shadow of Mount Fuji. As police discovered, one building was a chemical factory, equipped to make nerve agents by the ton.
But the Tokyo attack, they only used a small amount. It was made hastily in a laboratory, and carried onto the subway in 11 plastic bags wrapped in newspaper.
DEE: The terrorist has an advantage that the military did not. And we built a military -- we built a military device that had to last 10 to 20 years. As far as the terrorist is concerned, if it holds up in time for him to transfer it to where he wants to use it, that's all that need be necessary.
BOETTCHER: In the subway, cult members used the sharpened tips of umbrellas to puncture the sarin-filled bag. They quickly escaped as the liquid spilled onto the floor and began to evaporate. DEE: If the Aum Shinrikyo people had put a bomb in the subway, everybody would have said, yes, that was terrible, and then gone on about their business. But by virtue of the fact that they used a chemical weapon, it was viewed as a major escalation, if you will, in terror.
BOETTCHER: As terrorism experts studied the attack, they came away with lessons learned, in case it happens again. For example, even though emergency calls were coming in from 15 different subway stops, as passengers staggered off trains, Tokyo authorities did not immediately connect the events.
AMY SMITHSON, STIMSON CENTER: The initial alarm that went out from Tokyo was that there had been an explosion in the subway.
BOETTCHER: Amy Smithson, a terrorism expert at the Washington- based Stimson Center, says the same confusion could be a problem in the U.S.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The exact location of your emergency.
BOETTCHER: The research found that 911 operators are not always trained to ask for the information that would indicate a poison chemical is in the air.
SMITHSON: And if you don't give the rescuers going to the scene heads-up that there is a toxic substance present, they might not be as careful as they should be with their own respiratory protection. And they could become casualties themselves.
BOETTCHER: Panic can also complicate rescue efforts. In Tokyo, the hospitals were mobbed by subway passengers seeking help. Some of them were ill, but most were not.
SMITHSON: They were scared. My goodness, people were coughing and convulsing around them. Physicians and nurses on the receiving end of this stage often have difficulty discerning who is ill and who isn't.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Code yellow, code yellow, major trauma.
BOETTCHER: Smithson says the problem underscores the need to alert hospitals at the same time rescue workers are dispatched.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you got?
SMITHSON: In disaster plans, there is always a box that says, "check, notify the hospital." But I found that even in the drills, sometimes the hospitals weren't notified of incoming patients.
BOETTCHER: Emergency rooms may need to decontaminate victims, so that chemical on their clothes doesn't also make others sick. They will need a ready supply of drugs that reverse the effects of chemical poisons, and they will need time to find space for the onslaught of patients.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you'll fall in right behind them.
BOETTCHER: The solutions are within reach, many experts agree, if there is time and money for training the police, firefighters, paramedics and hospitals.
SMITHSON: Lives are going to be saved by the locals. If you interview anybody who has ever been at the scene of a disaster, they will tell you all emergencies are local.
BOETTCHER: In Tokyo, the memory of the attack is still vivid six years later. The trial of the cult's bearded, half-blinded leader is pending. He has pled not guilty to murder.
But another senior member of the cult recently apologized in court to the victims. Ironically, the statement came on September 11, just hours before the terror attack that shook America to its core.
BAY: It's the ultimate nightmare: a terrorist with the ultimate weapon. Coming up, terrorists attempt to go nuclear; the possible and the improbable.
BAY: It's long been an issue of great concern and intrigue: Do terrorists have the bomb? Most counterterrorism and security experts doubt terrorists' nuclear capabilities, at least on a grand or sophisticated scale. But those same skeptics warn that terrorists have shown great interest in acquiring nuclear material. Osama bin Laden, himself, has declared that acquiring nuclear weapons is a religious duty.
More on terrorism's nuclear threat from CNN's David Ensor.
DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Many Americans can still remember living with the fear of nuclear attack. Through much of the Cold War, Soviet and American nuclear arsenals grew, the weapons kept on hair-trigger alert.
Though the Cold War is over, U.S. planners must now consider another kind of nuclear threat.
RICHARD GARWIN, PHYSICIST, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: My greatest concern is that terrorists will acquire nuclear weapons material in which uranium or plutonium -- and fashion from that a nuclear weapon that they will detonate in San Francisco or New York, Washington, or some other great American city.
DAVID ALBRIGHT, INSTITUTE FOR SCIENCE AND IMMIGRATIONAL SECURITY: The horrible thing about a nuclear weapons is that it produces so many burn causalities and so many radiation injuries. And it's very hard to have even the medical facilities to deal with that. And we'd facing a section of the city that probably couldn't be occupied for a long time.
ENSOR: Al Qaeda's interest in learning how to make nuclear weapons is clear from materials recently found by journalists and others in the group's safehouses in Kabul. There is also evidence the group has tried hard to attain materials to make a nuclear bomb.
In the New York trial of al Qaeda members accused in the Africa embassy bombings, Jamal Ahmed Al-Fadl testified that an attempt was made in 1993 to buy South African bomb-grade uranium.
ALBRIGHT: My understanding is it was highly enriched uranium, and that it -- they didn't get it, and it was a scam.
ENSOR: That failure may not have stopped the efforts. In recent months, a senior Russian general said terrorists -- he did not say which ones -- were seen snooping around some little-known nuclear facilities in Russia.
PAVEL FELGENHAUER, RUSSIAN JOURNALIST: These are very secretive places. And of course, he didn't say anymore -- didn't go into any other detail except that there attempts of stocking, and that there were foiled.
ENSOR: Russia has about 20,000 nuclear weapons of one kind or another, stored at more than 100 different sites, according to experts. The weapons are under extraordinary security. But there is also the question of nuclear know-how. U.S. officials openly worry that hard-up Russian biological and chemical scientists might sell their expertise to terrorists or rogue states. Fortunately, they believe Russian nuclear scientists may be less likely to do the same.
ROGER HAGENGRUBER, SANDIA NATIONAL LABORATORY: They tend to be as -- treated as well as Russian can possibly treat people. They try to do that with the people at their Russian labs. They don't make a lot of money, but they're very patriotic about their country.
ENSOR: Pakistan is another matter. Money may not be the only motivation for scientists there to help terrorists learn about nuclear weapons. Radical Islamic beliefs could also be a factor.
Three Pakistani atomic scientists, including Basha Radin Mahmoud, a former official in the nation's nuclear weapons program have been questioned by Pakistani officials recently about their frequent travel to Afghanistan. Pakistani officials say the men met there with Osama bin Laden. Mahmoud has said the trips were on behalf of a Muslim humanitarian charity.
And there is another nuclear danger from terrorists -- what if the terrorists in New York in 1993 had used a so-called "dirty bomb," a truck bomb laced with radioactive materials, which are readily available on the Russian black market and elsewhere? Such an attack would not kill very many people, though cancer rates could rise. But it could also sew panic, create a massive cleanup challenge.
FELGENHAUER: These radioactive dust get into such places where you never can find it and clean it out. ENSOR: And there could be a silent danger from terrorists too: a nuclear threat with no explosion involved. The danger was highlighted by an incident back in 1987 in Brazil. Scavengers found a capsule containing an ounce of highly radioactive cesium 137 used for medical work. They passed the material around, causing radiation burns and sickness.
GARWIN: The population loved this glowing material, which they painted on their skin. And it got into their food supply. And I believe four people died and 50 people had to be hospitalized. And it cost a good many millions of dollars for the United Nations to clean it up.
ENSOR (on-camera): So what does that Brazilian case say?
ALBRIGHT: There can be a surprise radiological weapon. And the surprise could be quite traumatic if we don't discover it for several days. If it was done near the White House, there's radiation protection from in there. We have it around certain strategic assets. But I'm not sure we have it in major cities.
ENSOR (voice-over): The Bush administration must worry about such possibilities. But as for the real nightmare scenario, a terrorist nuclear bomb, U.S. officials do not believe it exists; at least, not yet.
HAGENGRUBER: So there's no question that they've got an interest. There is also no question there's lots of material out there. The question is: Do they have material that indicates that they have a very aggressive, competent program to build a weapon? And I have seen nothing to date that would indicate that.
ENSOR (on-camera): And how can the U.S. keep the nightmare scenario at bay? The military effort in Afghanistan and the law enforcement effort worldwide may be helping. But nuclear experts say the most important thing the U.S. could do would be to dramatically increase its efforts to help Russia secure its nuclear weapons and materials. Those efforts, they say, have been dangerously under funded in recent years because many Americans assumed, wrongly, that the end of the Cold War meant the end of nuclear danger.
BAY: It's not as dramatic as the threat of a nuclear attack, but a terrorist strike against America's food supply could prove devastating. When we return, agriterrorism and America's vulnerability.
BAY: Increased security at airports, nuclear facilities and visible American institutions. But what about the nation's farms and food processing plants? Critics argue that the terrorist threat to U.S. food supplies has until very recently been overlooked. Agriterrorism and America's vulnerability from CNN's Eileen O'Connor.
CLEVE MOBLEY, FARMER: Right now, I'm farming about 3,700 acres consisting of cotton, corn, peanuts, wheat. I have about 350 cows that I'm raising on my farm.
EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Cleve Mobley has been farming in Georgia his entire life. For the past five years, severe drought and low commodity prices have threatened his nearly 4,000 acres. Could terrorists be the next threat? Mobley hopes not.
MOBLEY: It'd be difficult probably to figure a way out to guard every acre because it's spread out over a 20-mile radius. I would hate to have that job.
O'CONNOR: But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has put the countries farmers on notice, asking grain storage facilities and veterinarians to be prepared for bioterrorism.
SEN. PAT ROBERTS (R), KANSAS: The terrorists who add to our nation's food supply, livestock, grain and other groups is a very real possibility and we're very concerned about it.
O'CONNOR: Senator Pat Roberts has introduced agriterrorism security legislation to bolster funding for labs that research ways to protect crops and to develop a nationwide emergency response plan.
His concern comes in part from the discoveries that one of the reported World Trade Center attackers had tried to buy a crop duster and another man arrested as a material witness, possessed crop dusting manuals.
ROBERTS: I can tell you that al Qaeda has had a very specific interest in this kind of warfare. There are manuals that were constructed in the old Soviet Union.
Primarily, the former Soviet Union was in the business of developing these kinds of things as an offensive weapon to attack the North American food supply.
O'CONNOR: But food safety experts say the real threat is not infected crops, cautious food handling can minimize those risks, but infected cattle. The economic consequences could be devastating.
PETER CHALK, TERRORISM EXPERT, RSHH: A disease introduced into livestock could potentially spread very rapidly largely because of the very intensive and concentrated nature of modern farming practices in the U.S. Animals are read, bred and transported in large proximity towards one another.
O'CONNOR: Terrorism expert, Peter Chalk, points to the foot-and- mouth disease epidemic in the United Kingdom as an example. That outbreak forced the slaughter of nearly four million livestock in the past year. The epidemic has cost the British economy between 3.5 and $5.9 billion.
CHALK: The USDA had actually done a study here in the United States that models the spread of foot-and-mouth over five days. And it calculated that it could stretch as many as 25 states in that timeframe.
O'CONNOR: Chalk and other experts say infected livestock would result in few if any human deaths. But farmers' heards would be decimated, potentially bankrupted some farmers, disrupting the food supply, impacting the economy.
Because of the threat of foot-and-mouth disease, agricultural officials are reviewing the system protecting the food supplies.
ANN VENEMAN, SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE: We've been reviewing all of our inspectors, our points of entry for product to make sure that we don't have such an unwanted disease that would be introduced into this country.
O'CONNOR: Government inspection of food processing plants are the major concern of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
TOMMY THOMPSON, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: And we have to do a much better job. I am more fearful about this than anything else.
O'CONNOR: The Food and Drug Administration does the inspections of processing plants, but they are infrequent at some facilities. Thompson believes beefing up the system is critical to Homeland Security.
THOMPSON: The problem we have, Congressman, is that we have 750 agents in FGA. We have 56,000, 56,000 establishments that we're supposed to inspect. And we are inspected them -- we supposed to inspect them once a year and those that have not caused problems were inspected maybe once every four years, once every five years.
O'CONNOR: Inspections intended to protect people from foods contaminated with botulism, E. coli, salmonella, or other dangers. If a person eats food tainted with bacteria like salmonella, usually, the result is food poisoning, fever, diarrhea and possible dehydration.
Infecting food at processing plants would depend on timing because the processing itself via pasteurization or radiation is designed to eliminate harmful bacteria. Access would have to occur after those procedures. And the bigger processing plants claim to already have safety procedures in place.
MICHAEL DOYLE, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA: Well, I feel very comfortable with the security that I have seen in major food processing plants. Some of the smaller processors don't have quite the ware with all, as do the major processors.
CHALK: The issue here is your small-scale packing plants that deal with seasonal fruits and vegetables because here, the workforce is seasonal. It is transient. There's a high turnover, generally, there's no checking of records of who comes or who's working there. O'CONNOR: To understand the impact that intentional salmonella poisoning can have, look to the small community of Ledalt (ph), Oregon. In 1984, some of the followers of Indian Guru, Bagranshred Rajnis (ph) went into 10 restaurants all over town, spraying salmonella bacteria over the open salad bars. Seven hundred fifty people got sick.
In fact, experts can offer no particular reassurance about restaurants given that you don't know who handled the food or what precautions are being taken. At home, on the other hand, experts say to a large extent you control the safety of your food, whether it's farm fresh, processed or imported.
DOYLE: Well, the best defense we have if we're going to somehow annoyingly consume an infected food is if it's a produce type product, to peel it and wash it well. If it's meat and poultry and something we would normally cook, when you handle it, make sure you wash your hands well after handling and cook it well.
O'CONNOR: For lifelong farmers like Cleve Mobley, the threat of agriterror seems remote.
MOBLEY: As far as our local farms here, as isolated as we are, it's not as big a concern. I think terrorists try to make a large impact and it's just so rural out here, there's not as many people to affect.
O'CONNOR: While the risk to human health may be relatively low, a stealth terror attack on farms using agents that infect livestock or crops could have a dramatic economic impact and be another weapon in the terrorists' arsenal.
MOBLEY: So many jobs are affected by agriculture and we're right on the brink now of whether or not we can stay in business. And anything negative that could affect agriculture in any way would be devastating to our economy in these small counties and towns right now.
BAY: Exotic threats and weapons get a lot of attention, but conventional attacks remain the most probable and accessible methods of terror. That story when we return.
BAY: While Americans worry about unimaginable horrors, it's important to remember that weapons of mass destruction are not the greatest threat. Conventional attacks continue to be the most practical and the most accessible means of spreading terror. The fact is it's a lot easier to pack a truck full of explosives than to build a nuclear bomb or a biological weapon. CNN's Kathy Slobogin looks at how one city prepares.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KATHY SLOBOGIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The fire burned for five days last summer. It paralyzed the city of Baltimore. Eight cars in a train hauling hazardous chemicals derailed in a city tunnel.
DONALD HEINBUCH, BALTIMORE AREA FIRE CHIEF: The potential, it was very serious. We had a pretty bad at fire in progress. And again, this is right underneath of a major downtown street and a light rail right-of-way.
SLOBOGIN: The Baltimore tunnel fire was an accident. Fortunately, the cars that were punctured weren't filled with poisonous chemicals. But what if real cars carrying highly toxic gas had been attacked intentionally?
That's what worries Maryland's antiterrorism officer, Donald Lumpkin.
DONALD LUMPKIN, MARYLAND ANTITERRORISM OFFICER: In terms of scale, it would increase dramatically. There would have been a larger number of causalities involved. We would certainly had to have done a larger scale evacuation.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The concern would be will the normal surgical mask protect us in that.
SLOBOGIN: It's part of Lumpkin's job to lead antiterrorism exercises like this one, assimilated small pox attack on Baltimore.
LUMPKIN: Can we quarantine the whole city?
SLOBOGIN: But despite the national fixation on exotic weapons like anthrax and small pox, Lumpkin and other experts say the most likely threat to any city is a conventional attack with old-fashioned bombs and bullets.
Just in the last two weeks, natural gas companies went on high alert after the FBI issued a warning about a potential plot to blow up pipelines.
LUMPKIN: The day-to-day threat awareness for any jurisdiction, in my opinion, has always been and will probably always be high explosive. That's what people focus on because it's the easiest to do, because there's so much evidence historically for it, it's simple, it's effective, it gets the point across.
SLOBOGIN (on-camera): In fact, it's not exotic threats but explosions that have been behind virtually every terrorist attack against Americans from the World Trade Center to Oklahoma City to the U.S. embassies in Africa.
As American cities gear up to face the new homeland threat, they're trying to figure out how to protect everything from harbors to nuclear plants to shopping malls.
(voice-over): Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has a new mission since September 11, making his city a hard target, hard for terrorists to penetrate.
In that battle, he says the most important troops are local.
GOV. MARTIN O'MALLEY, BALTIMORE: We are the response. I mean there are no federal firefighters. Your local police and your local government, your local firefighters, your health care workers at your local hospitals, we are the front line of homeland defense.
SLOBOGIN: O'Malley has been one of the most aggressive mayors in the country in fortifying his city. Other cities are watching Baltimore's tactics.
GERALD HUFFMAN, BALTIMORE CITY HEALTH WORKER: We're looking for spikes. That is we're looking for any kind of anomaly of symptoms that would indicate a chemical or biological attack.
SLOBOGIN: Here, city health worker, Gerald Huffman (ph) demonstrates Baltimore's one of a kind health monitoring system, looking for symptoms like respiratory distress or seizures.
HUFFMAN: This is an incident where there is a breathing difficulty.
SLOBOGIN: Data is tracked from emergency rooms, the fire department, even animal control to pinpoint a possible attack before it overwhelms the city.
O'MALLEY: How about the HazMat thing, local ordinance to force these guys to fence their hazardous materials?
SLOBOGIN: Since September 11, the mayor has held weekly security councils.
O'MALLEY: How about the fortifying of the chlorine tanks and that sort of thing?
SLOBOGIN: The vulnerability of chemical plants and rail cars carrying poisonous chemicals in an industrial city like Baltimore is a top concern.
O'MALLEY: There are open rail yards in a lot of cities in America. The chemical companies are a concern. Trying to get private companies to actually take the sort of precautions with perimeter fencing and security cameras and extra eyes is a difficult thing to drag them to do.
SLOBOGIN: City officials are worried about security at rail yards. As recently as late October, six weeks after the September 11 attacks, a police memorandum concluded security at most of these sites does not exist.
ROBERT GOULD, CSX: All this is new for all of us. And all these situations, terrorist attacks; it's new for any government agency. It's new for a corporate entity.
SLOBOGIN: Robert Gould works for CSX, one of several railroads that haul hazardous chemicals through the city, which has come under pressure from the mayor's office.
Gould says CSX has stepped up security at its rail yard.
GOULD: As far as vulnerability, we're doing some things, obviously, that I can't talk about. We're doing things to increase the security of our yards and our operations throughout the nation, throughout our system.
SLOBOGIN: But Gould says protecting thousand of miles of track is impossible.
GOULD: There are some things that we can do that are very practical, some things that are very impractical and also, of course, there's a cost associated with that and you have to balance out the costs.
SLOBOGIN: Rail industry officials say major carriers have taken measures like making schedules for hazardous materials less predictable. But Baltimore's mayor says they need to do more despite the cost.
O'MALLEY: A gentleman at the railroad said to me, "We couldn't possibly fence and surveil all of our railway. And you know that we have, you know, thousands and thousands of miles of railway in the United States of America." And I said, well, I'm sure you do, but how many of it runs through America's 20 largest population centers. Five percent? Ten? Three percent? In this day in age, you tell me you can't surveil and do perimeter fencing and keep an eye on those dangerous areas right near huge population centers.
SLOBOGIN: The city has spent an extra $4 million on security since September's attack. Deciding where to spend the money and what to protect is a high stakes guessing game.
LUMPKIN: There are so many targets out there that could be a terrorist interests. What we do is that we look at them as a group and say, if we had to identify the top 50 targets in the state what would they be? And then we have to make a decision and the decision is where are we going to dedicate the resources?
SLOBOGIN: At best, homeland defense is an imperfect science. An attack could come anywhere, anytime. But at least, the city of Baltimore is on alert.
(on-camera): Do you feel prepared?
O'MALLEY: I do. I feel a lot better prepared now than I did before the chemical fire. And I feel a lot prepared as a city since September 11 than I did on September 12.
BAY: Of all the potential weapons in the terrorist's arsenal, the most lethal and affective may be fear itself. And perhaps the most effective response, information and preparation. In other words, critical first steps towards prevention. That's this edition of CNN PRESENTS. I'm Willow Bay. Thanks for joining us.
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