Are We Afraid of the Wrong Things?

Poisoning the nation’s milk supplies. Crashing a gasoline tanker into a shopping mall. Setting off a nuclear bomb at the foot of the Supreme Court.

In the four years since the 9/11 attacks, those are only a few of the scary scenarios that scientists and experts have sketched out for how terrorists could strike America again.

But because of the government’s ineffective response immediately after Hurricane Katrina, some are questioning whether too much federal effort and money have gone into preparing for events that are remote or unlikely.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, says Katrina shows how woefully inadequate federal responses are to emergencies.

“If our system did such a poor job when there was no enemy, how would the federal, state and local governments have coped with a terrorist attack that provided no advance warning and that was intent on causing as much death and destruction as possible?” she said.

Some terrorist experts contend that the federal planning shows that addressing all of the potential vulnerabilities isn’t possible, or necessary, and it’s time to take the nation off the elevated threat level it has been under since 9/11.

Al Qaeda isn’t a country that can draw on its treasury to make new weapons, but an organization that takes its membership from societies that don’t have the technical skills to make or handle biological weapons safely, they say.

The National Academy of Sciences recently issued a report on the threat of botulinum toxin poisoning the nation’s milk supply, but didn’t note that it took the U.S. military years of careful research to identify the particular botulism strain that had any military use. Could al Qaeda scientists working in primitive labs replicate that process without killing the scientists themselves?

Would it really be that easy to steal a fully loaded gasoline tanker and drive it through the streets to a shopping mall without police being notified of the theft and on watch for gasoline trucks?

Another frightening prospect put forth by some experts is that terrorists might knock out America’ s electrical grid. But could anyone easily find the location of the relays vital for that grid?

George Smith of the Washington research tank says U.S. assessments of the capabilities of terrorists are far too scary. He says they serve to spread a sense of helplessness against terrorism and result in dispersing federal funds into hundreds of defensive projects.

There’s a bottomless pit of potential terrorist targets, he said.

“From food terror, to manipulating the flu virus, to blowing up chemical plants, to getting driver’s licenses, to coming across the Mexican border, to buying large caliber guns, to shooting down planes with ground-to-air missiles, to spreading hoof-and-mouth disease and destroying the cattle industry, to paralyzing Los Angeles by attacking power stations, to causing major blackouts, to putting anthrax in bagged rice,” Smith said. “There really is no end to it. It’s stupefying in its universality.”

Smith, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry, said many Internet recipes he’s seen for making biological weapons are laughable, and he said it’s ridiculous to think al Qaeda has access to sophisticated western laboratories or the technical knowledge to make biological weapons that are effective.

The Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinriko recruited college students to try and make anthrax and botulism, but found they couldn’t get their hands on strains that were sufficiently virulent. The cult turned to making a sarin nerve gas, which cult members spread on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing 12 people and sending 5,000 to the hospital.

Rather than looking at the exotic threats of bioterrorism, Smith said the government should be wary of more basic methods of terrorism, such as putting cyanide in chicken nuggets. “It’s tough to kill a lot of people suddenly and quickly,” he said.

Art Hulnick, a former CIA analyst who is now a professor at Boston University, says he doesn’t believe the federal government is overreacting to terrorist threats, but he does contend it’s time the government lowered elevated threat levels.

“It’s difficult to move back,” Hulnick said.

In the last four years, both federal and state governments have moved to close loopholes that allowed al Qaeda operatives involved in the 9/11 attacks to get driver’s licenses and open bank accounts while drawing little attention from authorities. Private industry has done more to increase security around potentially vulnerable places.

“The bottom line is that the 9/11 hijackers couldn’t do today what they did on 9/11,” he said.

Hulnick said he’s also skeptical there are al Qaeda sleeper cells still operating in the United States, or there would have already been follow-on attacks. “If there are sleeper cells out there, they are asleep,” he said.

Novelist Brad Thor, who is part of an “analytic red cell” team created by the Department of Homeland Security, says he wants the government to continue to study unusual ways terrorists might attack.

Thor said the red cell teams are composed of artists and writers like himself who are invited periodically to government-run sessions to think up ways terrorists might attack. He won’t discuss particular vulnerabilities the red team explores, “but I’m proud of how our government is thinking outside of the Beltway and looking for new ideas.”

Thor said the red cell teams meet several times a year in a northern Virginia office building and map out scenarios for how terrorists could strike “soft targets” in the United States. “Fiction sometimes arrives at the truth,” Thor said, contending the government has uncovered real plots that mirrored the scenarios the fiction writers thought up.

Matthew Lippman, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who teaches classes on terrorism, said the government needs to be more realistic about the capabilities of al Qaeda, which has not been that sophisticated in it attacks.

“I don’t want to minimize the threat,” Lippman said, but he expects terrorists will rely on unsophisticated methods of bullets or bombs. He has examined al Qaeda’s activities since the 9/11 attacks and notes that none of the attacks mounted overseas have cost the group more than $60,000.

There are reports al Qaeda has sought to recruit scientific experts into its ranks, but Lippman said most of the group’s rank and file are not well educated. The recent London bombings “were incredibly crude attacks” using chemicals bought in drug stores and put together so poorly that some did not explode.

Lippman said all the nightmare scenarios and scare stories are diverting attention and money away from security improvements that need to be made in America’s transportation network, from surveillance in railway and subway systems to bolstering the health network so it can respond effectively if there is an attack.

“There are so many obvious holes in the system that it’s frightening,” he said.

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)