US Officials Anxiously
Preparing For
Germ-Chemical Terrorism
By Terry Atlas
Washington Bureau
The Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- The bombings of two U.S. Embassies in Africa, as bad as they were, pale against the kinds of terrorist threats envisioned by U.S. officials.
Even as the U.S. reinforces security abroad and at home, officials are anticipating the day when extremists give up powerful explosives in favor of lethal microbes and toxic chemicals capable of causing even more terror and death.
The Pentagon, for instance, recently staged a mock attack by terrorists, who infiltrated the building, took hostage Defense Secretary William Cohen's staff and released the deadly nerve agent sarin.
The May exercise, which involved more than 500 people, including the Pentagon's SWAT team, FBI, local police and a metropolitan medical strike team, was intended to test contingency plans for a domestic chemical or biological terror attack.
Such concerns were reflected in a presidential order, signed days before the Pentagon drill, which gave heightened priority to counter-terrorism efforts. In June, Clinton asked Congress for $294 million in additional counter-terrorism spending to stockpile antidotes and antibiotics and to train federal and local officials how to respond to a chemical or biological attack.
In a report to Congress earlier this year, the General Accounting Office said emergency response personnel in fewer than two dozen of 120 earmarked cities have been trained so far in general terrorism responses under a $30 million program passed by Congress in 1996. Chicago is among the cities where personnel have been trained.
Also, the GAO said conventional explosives and firearms, not exotic new weapons, are likely to continue as the "weapons of choice."
"Terrorists are less likely to use chemical and biological weapons than conventional explosives, although the likelihood that they may use chemical and biological materials may increase over the next decade," the GAO said.
After the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the FBI sent a terrorism alert to all federal government buildings, but officials wouldn't say whether government buildings have increased security.
In its annual report on terrorism, issued last week, the FBI listed three instances of domestic terrorism in 1996, the most recent year for which it releases such information. They were the Centennial-Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta and two bombings and bank robberies attributed to members of the Phineas Priesthood, a white supremacist group.
The FBI reported preventing five planned domestic terrorist incidents--including an attack on law enforcement personnel and bombings of federal buildings-- that security analysts said show the continuing dangers.
"Do we see an increasing threat on the domestic level? I'm afraid we do," said Clark Staten, executive director of the Emergency Response and Research Institute, a Chicago-based organization that advises government and business about emergency response and security issues.
In the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Washington has spent $397 million on security improvements at federal buildings around the country. Along with physical measures, such as barriers and metal detectors, the government has more than doubled the number of guards at federal buildings to over 5,300 from 2,300.
Robert Peck, a top official at the General Services Administration, told a congressional committee in June that the government has completed 90 percent of the 8,000 security improvements recommended in the wake of Oklahoma City. "In many cases, the remaining improvements are more difficult--they require building redesigns or renovations," he said.
In recent years, the General Services Administration, which manages federal buildings, has replaced about 40 courthouses with new, more secure buildings. In Hammond, Ind., for instance, the new building was designed so that windows in judges' chambers are not exposed to the street.
The agency has identified a further 120 courthouses that need to be replaced because they are too small, have serious security deficiencies, or both.
At current funding levels of $500 million a year, that will take 10 years, Peck said.
While improving security at U.S. buildings at home and abroad can deter attacks on them, terrorists may still strike where they are not expected, as was the case in Kenya and Tanzania, where the terrorism risk wasn't considered high.
"The bad guys are going to go for soft targets. They like easy targets," said Staten, a retired assistant chief of the Chicago Fire Department.
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