In an op-ed published in the Washington Post on July 26, 1999, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen offered the most alarming depiction yet of America’s vulnerability in what he called the “grave New World” of biological terrorism. In his lurid depiction of a biological Pearl Harbor, a lethal pathogen carried “across hemispheres in hours” infects “unsuspecting thousands,” with devastating results. “Hospitals would become warehouses for the dead and dying. A plague more monstrous than anything we have experienced could spread with all the irrevocability of ink on tissue paper. Ancient scourges would quickly become modern nightmares.” The question confronting the United States, Cohen insisted, is not if such an incident will occur, but when.
Nor is the belief that Americans face the near-certain prospect of a surprise biological attack unique to Cohen. President Clinton himself confessed that worrying about a biological assault against the United States “keeps me awake at night.” And over the last two years—ever since The Cobra Event, a thriller about terrorists unleashing a deadly toxin in New York City, made it to the top of the presidential reading list—such fears have prompted the Clinton administration as a whole to make biological defense a top priority.