Rethinking Bio-Chemical Dangers

Well before the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas subway attack of 1995, the Defense Department was forced to consider the implications of a biological weapons attack directed against the Pentagon. It was not a real threat, but rather a scenario posed by a leading biological weapons expert to a meeting of senior Defense Department officials shortly after President Bush had committed U.S. forces to defend Saudi Arabia. What, this expert asked, was the Defense Department doing to protect against the possibility of an anthrax letter-bomb being sent to the Pentagon by Saddam Hussein? All the officials at the meeting shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. There was some discussion of the difficulty of searching over 25,000 briefcases and purses carried into the building daily. This was followed by a somewhat lengthier discussion about the need to be in touch with the Centers for Disease Control and the local fire department.

The awkwardness continued until one of the junior officials present was asked what could be done. Not much, was his answer. However, he was not sure that there was much of a threat. An anthrax letter-bomb might kill officials in the Pentagon, but was unlikely to paralyze U.S. armed forces (most of whom were housed elsewhere). And in any case, he explained, such an attack would solve the White House’s key problem, which was to win public support for a ground attack on Iraq. The only real worry was that Saddam could not be counted on to be so stupid. With this, the meeting ended and no action was taken.

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