|Source: Popular Mechanics, June 1998 v175 n6 p80(6).
Title: Weapons of mass destruction. (chemical, nuclear, and
Full Text COPYRIGHT 1998 Hearst Corporation. All rights reserved. Further reproduction prohibited.
Easy to build, easy to hide, they pose a greater threat to the American way of life than all of Russia's nuclear bombs.
It happened across town from the Popular Mechanics office. Fanatics exploded a truck bomb in the garage of the World Trade Center. Although the blast killed six and injured more than 1000, we got off lucky. "A lone madman or nest of fanatics with a bottle of chemicals, a batch of plague-inducing bacteria or a crude nuclear bomb can threaten or kill tens of thousands of people in a single act of malevolence," says Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.
Just how vulnerable is the United States to terrorists using weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)? R. James Wollsey, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, tells PM he believes terrorists armed with WMDs represent the single most serious threat to U.S. national security. And one that at present we are ill-prepared to meet.
WMDs fall into three categories: chemical, nuclear and biological. Most experts agree that despite their occasional high visibility--for instance, after the Aum Shinrikyo nerve gas attack on a subway in Tokyo--chemical weapons pose relatively little threat. "Chemicals are big and bulky," says Woolsey. Even if a terrorist group can acquire mustard, chlorine or nerve gas in sufficient quantity, there remains the problem of dispersing the agents in a way that causes serious damage. "Some analysts believe that those who attacked the World Trade Center in 1993 laced their bomb with cyanide, which burned up in the explosion," says Richard K. Betts, director of the Columbia University Institute for the War and Peace Studies, in New York.
The threat posed by nuclear weapons is both lesser and greater than that posed by chemical agents. This is because defense experts distinguish between two types: fissile, or explosive weapons and radiological weapons (RWs). Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seemed almost certain that a stolen nuclear bomb would turn up on the black market. A slew of novels and action movies sketched out scenarios of attacks against cities and major public events, such as the Super Bowl.
None of these attacks has come to pass. Experts doubt one ever will. "Few terrorist groups have shown an interest in inflicting true mass destruction," says Betts. The reason: Fear of a nuclear reprisal against their home countries. And even if a group were so suicidally inclined, there remain the pesky details of designing and building a nuclear weapon. "Nuclear is tough to do unless you already have fissionable material," Woolsey points out. "A homemade nuclear device would be primitive, and also large and bulky."
As for an attack by a rogue state that somehow managed to buy stolen nuclear weapons, this also appears unlikely. Besides the dread of a counterattack, the problem is the delivery system. "Iraq, Iran or North Korea will not be able to deploy intercontinental missiles for years," explains Betts.
A more immediate concern is the nuke's quiet but deadly cousin, the radiological weapon. It isn't designed to explode, which solves 99.9% of the design problems. There is no blast or heat damage. Instead, RWs kill using radiation exposure alone. They were conceived here in the United States in the spring of 1943. At that time no one knew if the atomic bomb would actually detonate. But it was known that exposure to certain radioactive materials could kill. According to declassified Department of Energy records, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, and physicist Enrico Fermi considered using production reactors to make radioactive strontium in order to poison the German food supply.
RWs emit radiation--principally as gamma rays--that destroy individual cells. Bone marrow cells are especially vulnerable. Their death sets off a cascade of effects, including hemorrhaging and the collapse of the immune system. Unlike chemical weapons, which degrade once they come in contact with oxygen and moisture in the air, RWs can continue to inflict damage for years. An RW need only be "planted" in a public place to inflict its harm on everyone who passes by. This appears to have been what Chechen separatists had in mind in 1995 when they planted a vial of radioactive cesium in Izmailovsky Park, a popular Moscow flea market, just before Christmas. Police were tipped off end found the canister before anyone was hurt, according to the official account. United Nations chief weapons inspector Rolf Ekeus claims Iraq was working on RWs prior to the Gulf War.
Some idea of how deadly an attack with an RW might be comes from an accident that happened in 1987 in Goiania, a major city in south-central Brazil. A scavenger opened a lead canister attached to piece of abandoned medical equipment that had been hauled from a long-closed cancer clinic. It held cesium-137. Fascinated by the powder's luminous blue glow, he shared his find with his friends--who delighted in rubbing it on their bodies.
Within a week the first victims began coming to the local health clinic, exhibiting unmistakable signs of radiation sickness. Experts from the Brazilian government and later the International Atomic Energy Commission descended upon the city. More than 34,000 people were checked for signs of contamination. About 244 residents received a strong enough dose of radiation to become sick Fifty required hospitalization. Approval to use an experimental antiradiation drug saved all but four.
What might have happened had the cesium been dispersed intentionally, say from a small plane flying over the city, gives anti-terrorism experts nightmares. One of the few publicly available analyses of the threat posed by RWs was made by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). It concluded that RWs could be released effectively by delivery systems ranging from ballistic and cruise missiles to bombs, to a solid or liquefied mist sprayed from a remotely controlled aircraft. And, unlike chemical agents, RWs maintain their lethal effect even if they are dispersed with an explosive.
As frightening as RWs are, there is one final class of WMDs that poses even more concern, biological weapons. "Biologicals can be handled quite easily, and are effective in relatively small amounts," says Woolsey. "Producing a small quantity of bioweapons is about as difficult as running a microbrewery attached to a restaurant. The process is straightforward. You obtain the microorganism, and cultivate it in a growth medium. Drying the germs for use in a deliver system, such as an aerosol to spray anthrax, is the most difficult part of the process. but even this involves nowhere near the difficulties in cooking up nuclear or chemical weapons."
Once they're prepared. delivering the germs is relatively easy. The microbe mix could he sprayed from many different types of vehicles--everything everything from a light plane to a truck--or from canisters similar to insecticide bombs. You wouldn't even know that a weapon had been set off until a day or two later. And by that time it could be too late.
The experts at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, in Fort Detrick, Md., tell PM that there are more than a dozen bad actors on the biowarfare stage. Anthrax is probably the best known because of the wintertime showdown over weapons inspections in Iraq. The disease takes its name from the Greek word for coal because of a black scab that typically forms over sores that develop on the hands and forearms of those who come in contact with anthrax-infected livestock.
Defense planners are more concerned with the inhaled form of the disease called woolsorters' disease. This is a lung infection caused by breathing in anthrax sports. There is also a rare intestinal form contracted by eating insufficiently cooked meat from infected animals. In humans, the mortality rate ranges from up to 25% for the skin-contact form that infects livestock workers to 100% for inhaled and intestinal cases.
Anthrax is in some ways the ideal biological weapon. The bacterium is easy to cultivate and forms spores that are highly resistant to sunlight, heat and disinfectants. Theoretically, these spores could be delivered as an aerosol cloud or with an atomizing spray device from, say, an aircraft like those used for crop-dusting.
It would take some tune for people to realize they were in danger. Typically, it takes several days of incubation before a victim experiences the first symptom of anthrax, a flu-like malaise and fatigue. A cough and mild chest discomfort follow. Then come severe respiratory distress, shock and death within 36 hours of the onset of symptoms.
High doses of antibiotics can fight the disease, but by the time the symptoms are properly diagnosed, the victim normally is too far gone for help. Other biological agents with potential for adaptation as WMDs include: Argentine and Bolivian fevers, botulism, cholera, Congo-Crimean virus, Ebola, hantavirus, Lassa and Marburg fevers, plague, Rift Valley virus, staphylococcal enterotoxin B. Q-fever. smallpox. T-2 mycotoxins, tularemia and Venezuelan equine encephalitis.
Each of these agents kills in a slightly different way. The common denominator among them is their size, less than 5 microns across. These diminutive proportions mean they can remain airborne over a target for hours or--in still, dry weather--a day or more. Once inhaled, their small size enables them to bypass the filtering mechanisms in the upper respiratory system and enter the lungs. From here it is a quick trip to the bloodstream, and for the unfortunate victim who does no find medical help, the cemetery.
As dangerous as these killers are, there are ways we can defend ourselves. Woolsey believes the first order of business is simply to put someone in charge of dealing with WMD-wielding terrorists. This person would have the authority to put together a budget and make policy to cover such things as improving the capability of the CIA to spy on terrorist groups overseas, and the FBI to penetrate them at home. "Early warning," Woolsey maintains, "is essential for defense against biowarfare, and you don't get this kind of warning information from reconnaissance satellites."
Columbia's Betts cautions that protection may carry a higher price than Americans are used to paying. "Some of the most effective measures to prevent attacks within the United States may also challenge traditional civil liberties," he cautions. But even if the FBI tapped every telephone, monitored every book checked out of a library and read every piece of postal and electronic mail and Web page, there is no guarantee that it would stop a determined attacker. The Unabomber suspect who led the FBI on a multimillion-dollar chase for nearly two decades was finally caught only because his brother fumed him in.
The second leg of Woolsey's strategy is to seek to minimize the damage caused by a biological attack by creating a closer partnership between government and the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries. Among other things, he would like to see the development of inexpensive sensors that can detect biological agents as soon as they become airborne. These would create a precious window of time for treatment--after exposure, but before symptoms appear. During this brief period, even most anthrax victims can be treated and saved. Thousands of lives could be saved, provided sufficient stockpiles of vaccines and antibiotics were dispersed in hospitals and clinics around the country.
Woolsey admits that this kind of program will take effort. And it could cost billions. "People have to take the WMD threat seriously, but also realize that it is not a hopeless situation," he says. "There just are no silver bullets."
RELATED ARTICLE: How They Kill
Biological weapons kill by spreading a disease that is normally fatal or by tricking the body's cells into producing a toxin that overwhelms its defenses.
Although hundreds of bacteria and viruses are natural born killers, only a small number make good weapons. The viral hemorrhagic fevers novelists love to villainize are too rare and hard to grow to be useful to terrorists. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is common enough, but cannot survive outside of a narrow temperature range. Smallpox, on the other hand, is so contagious it remains a potential threat despite a successful global eradication program that has left only two acknowledge samples, one in the United States and other in Russia.
Given the natural limitations on bioweapons, it is not surprising that the most serious threat is posed by some of mankind's most ancient plagues. These include anthrax, a disease common in cattle, horses and sheep that attacks the human respiratory system causing death in a manner similar to pneumonia. Plague, scourge of the Middle Ages, causes intestinal bleeding and ultimately kills by causing the respiratory and circulatory systems to collapse. Botulinum toxin works somewhat like nature's own nerve gas. They set up roadblock that prevent the transmission of signals along nerves. Death typically follows collapse of the respiratory system. Gas gangrene naturally develops when soil contaminated with Clostridium bacteria find its way into a wound. It also can be grown in an industrial setting. Initially, exposure causes a fever and sweating, followed by rapid pulse and sudden drop in blood pressure. Victims then experience kidney failure, lapse into a coma and die.
Chemical weapons kill by destruction or disruption. The infamous "gases" of World War I--chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas--essentially bum away parts of the respiratory system. More modern nerve gasses--Sarin, Soman, Tabun and VX--disrupt the chemical processes through which one nerve cell communicates with another. Death occurs when the heart and lungs stop receiving instructions to beat and breathe.
Stolen nuclear bombs make for great thrillers, but experts say radiological weapons pose a greater risk. These don't explode but disperse radioactive materials. Certain types of nuclear waste and "sources" used in medical equipment emit gamma rays. By killing fast-replicating blood-forming cells, and cells that line the intestinal tract, "radiation poisoning" causes untreated victims to dehydrate and bleed to, death.