Sunday, March 25, 2007

Forgot A Couple of Things...

... in my last post.

Of course, there were a number of lawsuits files after the Triangle fire. Due to the way the Triangle Company was structured, and the legal maneuverings after the fire, the lawsuits were settled... for about $75 per death.

The lessons learned from the Triangle Fire were soon forgotten... or at least ignored. Since 1911, the same problems -- insufficient fire exits, overcrowding, lack of fire safety equipment or training -- have occurred time after time: Cocoanut Grove, the Winecoff Hotel, the LaSalle Hotel, Our Lady of the Angels School, Beverly Hills Supper Club, the Station Nightclub, even the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. One of the cruelest reminders was a fire at a chicken processing plant in Hamlet, NC, in 1991: 25 employees died... because the exits were locked to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks. Another cruel reminder: on the 79th anniversary of the fire (1990), arson struck the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx, NY, killing 87. Internationally, the record is even worse, including a fire in a Bangkok, Thailand, toy factory in 1993 that killed 188.

The Triangle Fire is the 14th worst single-building fire in United States history... and that includes the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

This Date in Fire History: March 25

Today marks the 96th anniversary of one of the most tragic fires in history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, occupied the top three floors (the eighth through tenth) of the Asch Building, located at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Manhattan. Like most garment factories of the day, Triangle was a slightly-improved sweatshop: hundreds of workers -- many of them young immigrant girls -- working long hours for low wages in abysmal conditions. The girls, some of them as young as twelve or thirteen, worked fourteen-hour shifts during a 72-hour workweek, and made about $1.50 per week.

The Asch Building had two narrow stairwells, two freight elevators, one passenger elevator (which wasn't in use on that fateful Saturday), and a rickety iron outside fire escape. When the building was started in 1900, fire codes were in their infancy; even then, however, the architects and builders cut some corners - to get the necessary permits, they promised authorities to make some changes to the blueprints... changes that were never incorporated into the finished building. Nevertheless, the building was considered "fireproof", which was effectively true: the building itself sustained only minor damage. It was the human beings within the building that paid the price.

The eighth and ninth floors were crowded with long tables, each containing about 25 sewing machines. The tables stretched from one wall almost to the opposite wall, leaving only a narrow aisle. The rows of tables were so close to each other that only one employee at a time could move to or from her machine.

Illustration by Nick Rotondo ©2005,
(Used by permission)

Fire sprinklers had been in use in warehouses for about twenty years, and their value had been proven time and again, but they weren't installed in the Asch Building. A standpipe system (fire hoses attached to plumbing in the stairwells) was in place, but apparently did not work. Fire safety was provided by about 30 leather pails of water on each floor. To make matters worse, the longest ladders on fire apparatus of the day only reached to about the sixth floor.

Triangle was one of many companies that manufactured the "shirtwaist" blouse made famous by Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girl", an idealized woman, both liberated (by the standards of the day; they still couldn't vote) and feminine. The shirtwaist was the epitome of women's fashions in the early years of the 20th Century. Shortly after World War I, however, the soft, elegant gowns and shirtwaists of the Gibson era were supplanted by the more mannish fashions of Coco Chanel and others.

Of course, in 1911, a "World War" was inconceivable. A musical style called "ragtime" was sweeping the nation, exemplified by Scott Joplin's magnificent Maple Leaf Rag, which had sold over one million copies. Prohibition was still in the future, although the temperance movement was gaining strength. The growth of major cities brought educational, professional, and cultural advances to more people than ever before.

The future looked bright. America was becoming the "shining beacon" of hope and progress, not only to the undeveloped countries, but also to Europe. Immigration was swelling the United States population, and the mix of new cultures, languages, and customs made American culture far richer.

The industrialization of America was well underway. Henry Ford was cranking out cars in Detroit, factories like the Triangle were replacing the smaller family shops of the past, and the unionization of workers was beginning: a 1909 strike by women's shirtwaist makers, known as the "Uprising of 20,000," started with a spontaneous walkout at Triangle.

Saturday, March 25, 1911, was a warm spring day, and about 4:45 PM, the roughly 700 Triangle employees were getting ready to quit for the day when a worker spotted smoke curling from one of the scrap bins under the sewing machine tables on the eighth floor. Within seconds, the flames had spread to the tables themselves, and then to the flimsy patterns hanging overhead. One employee used a "teleautograph" -- an early ancestor of the fax machine -- to alert other workers but was unable to transmit the message properly. A telephone call to the offices on the tenth floor warned the employees there, but the alarm was not passed to those on the ninth floor. Almost all of the workers on the eighth floor were able to escape, as were most of those on ten (who climbed across ladders stretched from the adjacent New York University School of Law, across the alley from the Asch Building).

The workers on the ninth floor did not learn of the fire until it blew in through the windows. Again, the fire fed hungrily on the fabric scraps, paper patterns, oil-soaked wood and other combustibles. Women raced for both stairwells, but found one of the locked (in an effort to prevent theft). The door to the second stairwell opened into the work area; the crush of fleeing girls prevented the door from opening. The operators of the freight elevators made several trips to the ninth floor and were able to rescue several dozen workers. Others attempted to go down the exterior fire escape, but steel shutters over the ladders obstructed their passage. This may have been a blessing in disguise, for the escape could not support the weight of the girls, and collapsed, spilling many into the courtyard nine floors below.

With nowhere else to go, hundreds of girls crowded the windows, trying to escape the fire. Some fell, some may have been pushed, but many decided to jump. In a scene eerily prescient of 2001, they plunged to the pavement, choosing the quick and relatively painless death of jumping over the slow and agonizing death by suffocation due to smoke, or the excrutiating pain of burning to death. Others threw themselves down the elevator shafts, crashing themselves against the tops of the cars.

FDNY Engine 72, which was quartered only a few blocks from the Asch Building, was on the scene within five or six minutes, even before the fire had fully engulfed the ninth and tenth floors, but there was nothing they could do. Their ladders didn't reach the trapped workers, and their hoses couldn't shoot water high enough to protect them. Firefighters set up safety nets, but victims tore right through them. Their only viable option was to mount an interior attack, and try to fight their way to the trapped victims.

Despite having gotten the fire under control in about twenty minutes, 146 people had died, about one-third of them having jumped or fallen to their deaths. At least 60 bodies were recovered from the upper floors, primarily the ninth floor; many were burned beyond recognition, making subsequent identification impossible in some cases (seven unidentified bodies were buried).

As is often the case after a multiple-fatality fire, numerous investigations were launched, most with the laudible goal of "ensuring this never happens again." Manslaughter charges were filed against Blanck and Harris, but they were acquitted after a brilliant performance by defense attorney Max Steuer. The city created the "Factory Invesigating Commission" to examine the need for new legislation to prevent future fire disasters. The members of the Commission included State Senator Robert F. Wagner (who went on to the United States Senate, where he was instrumental in passing many labor-friendly laws), State Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith (a future candidate for President), and Samuel L. Gompers, founder and president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). All three were profoundly affected by what their Commission learned.

The Commission inspected 1836 businesses and interviewed 222 witnesses. The City of New York enacted over 30 new fire and occupational safety laws, in part due to the Commission's work.

The fire ushered in "the golden era of remedial factory legislation," greatly expanding occupational safety, fire safety, and worker's rights. In many ways, the Triangle Fire could be considered one of the progenitors of much of Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" legislation.

One witness to the fire, Frances Perkins of the New York Consumer's League, became FDR's Secretary of Labor (and was the first female Cabinet member, as well as the first woman in the presidential line of succession). Years after the fire, Perkins said in an interview that the fire sharpened her focus on labor issues.

The last known survivor of the Triangle Fire, Rose Freedman, died on February 22, 2001, at age 107; she was a lifelong crusader for worker safety.

This post is dedicated to the memory of
Becky Reines and her 145 coworkers who

perished in the Triangle Fire.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Friday Oopsdate

The always gracious Anntichrist S. Coulter has two posts up, written in her own inimitable style, that pretty much cover the world in a nutshell. She discusses Louisiana politics, the budget, Abu G., and all the rest.

If you're the kind of weenie who gets the vapors from... ummm... colorful language, avoid her like the plague.

On the other hand, if you are that kind of person, you wouldn't be here, never mind there.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

WMD: A British Report Applied to the US

I ran across a very interesting paper on the Internets a few weeks back. The UK’s Chatham House – more formally known as The Royal Institute of International Affairs – released a study called The CBRN System: Assessing the threat of terrorist use of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom.

In about forty pages, researcher Paul Cornish not only provides a layman’s guide to weapons of mass destruction, but also examines how, why, and when each category of weapon might be used. Cornish also makes critical distinctions between military philosophies of use (and the conventional wisdom associated with those philosophies), and the philosophies to which terrorist groups might subscribe.

While Cornish’s report is aimed at a British audience, most of what he says is equally applicable to the United States. In this article, we will look at a brief history of terror and terrorism in the United States. We’ll examine Cornish’s study and apply his lessons to the situation here in the US. We will also compare and contrast Cornish’s study with other available research. Quotes from the paper will retain the British spelling.


Cornish’s report examines the four main types of WMD – chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear – and, to a certain extent, the precursor materials required to manufacture these weapons. Additionally, he discusses the complexity, construction, delivery and effect of different types of weapons.

Cornish makes the same claim as many other WMD/CBRN experts: that weaponizing these materials is complicated and expensive and therefore unlikely. But Cornish – and the others – miss one very important point: the goal of the terrorist is to instill terror, not necessarily to cause mass casualties (although that is certainly one way to achieve his goal). Given the right combination of commitment, materials, and resources, weaponization may be an unnecessary refinement.


The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines terrorism as, "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” [Emphasis added] Note there is no reference to casualties.

It is important to remember, however, the aphorism “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” For our purposes, a terrorist is a member of an identified terror group like al-Qaeda, or a group that is not an acknowledged, recognized component of a sovereign state. This includes religious, nationalist and revolutionary groups. In terms of the history of terrorism in the United States, our definition also includes home-grown extremist groups like militias, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups.

Of course, terrorism existed in the United States prior to September 11, 2001, as did the use of CBRN-type weapons: there were the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the Murrah Building in 1995, as well as at least one biological attack (Oregon, 1984). Earlier “terrorist” activities included the anarchist movement in New York City in the 1920’s (epitomized by Emma Goldman) and bombings by groups such as the Weathermen, the Ku Klux Klan, Black Panthers, and others in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. While the US has so far been spared from chemical attacks, the Tokyo Metro was the target of a Sarin gas attack in 1995. Domestic terror groups that have not (yet) used “weapons of mass destruction” include anti-abortion activists, environmental and animal-rights activist groups like the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front.

In fact, terrorism in the United States is older than the nation itself. The Boston Tea Party and other colonial actions leading up to and during the American Revolution could properly be described as terrorist in nature, as could occurrences like the Haymarket and Draft riots in 19th century Chicago and New York respectively.

A prime example of the difference between terror and casualties is the 2001 anthrax attacks: five dead and seventeen sickened (not mass casualties in the commonly-accepted use of the term), but even now – more than five years later – local or regional paranoia results any time a “white powder” shows up in a business, post office, or mail room. This instills terror in the populace, even when the powder is determined to be harmless. (The main reason we no longer have national paranoia with these cases is that they no longer garner national attention)

Moreover, one could look at the 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds for a classic example of widespread terror without any associated casualties. Needless to say, the broadcast was not intended to cause terror, nor was there any criminal intent behind the program. According to, “Hand cites studies by unnamed historians who ‘calculate[d] that some six million heard the Columbia Broadcasting System broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were 'genuinely frightened'". The following morning, the New York Times reported:

A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners between 8:15 and 9:30 o'clock last night when a broadcast of a dramatization of H. G. Wells's fantasy, "The War of the Worlds," led thousands to believe that an interplanetary conflict had started with invading Martians spreading wide death and destruction in New Jersey and New York.

The broadcast, which disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communications systems, was made by Orson Welles…. This time at least a score of adults required medical treatment for shock and hysteria.

This “mass hysteria” resulted from a fictional radio play. In this day and age, even a small RDD (radiological dispersion device, or “dirty bomb”) could cause a nation-wide panic potentially involving tens of millions. For that matter a carefully crafted and placed rumor could start a panic – the gullibility of the American public has not decreased markedly in the last 70 years.

The most prevalent terrorist weapons in the United States have been assassination, arson and conventional explosives, not WMDs.

According to the FBI report Terrorism in the United States – 1999, the “modern era” of terrorism in the United States began in the 1960’s. Many of the terrorist acts that occurred during the 60’s were related to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War or the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and were committed by left-wing groups[1].

Domestic terror groups can represent right-wing orientations (Aryan Nations, militias, the “patriot” and “sovereign citizen” movements), left-wing (Weather Underground) or special interests (anti-abortion extremists, Animal Liberation Front, Earth Liberation Front).


Chemical weapons have been used in combat since World War I, when the Germans used mustard gas on American and British forces in the trenches of France. Agents may be persistent or non-persistent. Cornish lists the types of agents, examples of each, and how the agent attacks the victim:

  • Nerve Agents (e.g. tabun (GA)[2] , sarin (GB), soman (GD), cyclosarin (GF)), and Thickened (or Persistent) Nerve Agents including VX and Russian VX (RVX). Nerve agents act by ‘switching off’ the body’s central nervous system. Nerve agents pose very difficult challenges in manufacture, weaponizing and delivery;
  • Blood Agents (e.g. hydrogen cyanide (AC), cyanogen chloride (CK), and arsine (SA)). Blood agents prevent absorption of oxygen;
  • Blister Agents (e.g. sulphur mustard, nitrogen mustard, phosgene oxime (CX) and lewisite). Blister agents attack the skin and airways, forming large contaminated blisters. Large quantities are required for a successful attack;
  • Choking Agents (e.g. phosgene (CG) and diphosgene (DP)). Choking agents attack lung membranes, leading to pulmonary oedema;
  • Vomiting Agents (e.g. adamsite (DM)). Vomiting agents cause a violent emetic reaction, which can be especially debilitating when used against troops wearing chemical protection equipment and masks, causing them to remove their protection and thereby expose themselves to other, lethal agents;
  • Incapacitants (e.g. hallucinogens such as LSD and BZ, as well as sleeping and laughing gas);
  • Irritants (e.g. tear gases such as CS, CN and CR).

Although it was not an act of war, the 1984 Bhopal leak of 40 tons of methyl isocyanate, a pesticide, is the best-known example of the toxicity of many chemicals. The leak ultimately killed approximately 28,000 people, and is still the worst accident in the chemical sector globally.

On the terrorist front, the most notorious use of chemical weapons was the simultaneous attacks on the Tokyo Metro by the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect in 1995. The attacks left twelve dead and hospitalized nearly five thousand others (although some researchers believe many of the illnesses were psychosomatic in nature). A year earlier, Aum Shinrikyo had killed seven people in a sarin attack in the city of Matsumoto. According to the Council on Foreign relations, however, the sarin used by the sect was a low-lethality batch. The Council’s “backgrounder” on sarin added:

…the sarin was disseminated poorly; the perpetrators left punctured packages of liquid sarin in subway cars and stations, which gave officials time to seal off the affected areas. If purer sarin had been released, particularly as an aerosol, the attack might have been much worse.

In discussing chemical weapons (CW), Cornish writes:

The general availability of toxic and precursor chemicals has led to CW being described as ‘the easiest of all catastrophic weapons to produce’. ‘Easiest’ although not ‘easy’: the production of CW remains challenging, scientifically and logistically.

This is, at best, disingenuous. While manufacturing true chemical munitions, such as those used by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds, might be beyond the means of many terrorist groups, there are plenty of ways for a committed terrorist or group to engage in chemical warfare against the US: detonating a rail car containing chlorine or a truck carrying propane; attacking a chemical plant, creating another Bhopal; contaminating a municipal water supply; or releasing hazardous chemicals into the ventilating system of an office building.

As I have noted before, security in the chemical sector is farcical. Even if one decides to pass up readily available materials for more esoteric precursors, it is not impossible that sufficient materials to build weapons have already been stolen and delivered to those with the knowledge and desire to produce weapons.

One consideration that is often overlooked is that virtually all counties – developed and developing alike – have their own chemical sector infrastructures; these facilities, regardless of their alleged purpose, can easily be retooled to develop and produce chemical weapons. This is particularly true for pesticide and pharmaceutical manufacturing sites, in that they are already designed with isolation and hazards in mind. Especially in those countries with animosities towards the United States, it is possible – if not likely – that chemical weapons research is being carried out as we speak. Groups such as al-Qaeda, while not nations themselves, often command the same level of dedication or even “patriotism”, with the possibility of sub-rosa chemical warfare research being carried on in purportedly neutral countries on behalf of such groups.

Chemical attacks may not be immediately recognized, due to the time required for agents to achieve full effect. This delay could result in the agent being inadvertently spread to previously uncontaminated areas.

While not chemical warfare per se, it is worth noting that two of the most prevalent chemicals in rural and agricultural America – ammonium nitrate fertilizer and diesel fuel – combine to form a potent explosive: such ANFO bombs were used in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.


The deliberate use of disease-causing agents in warfare goes back almost to the dawn of recorded history, when the bodies of plague victims were catapulted into fortified cities, with the aim of killing or incapacitating defenders. In modern times, Aum Shinrikyo, in addition to carrying out the sarin attacks in Japan, was also working to weaponize Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever, and had attempted to use anthrax in yet another attack. Novelist Tom Clancy, in his book Executive Orders, described a terrorist attack on the US, using Ebola; the attack virtually paralyzed the nation.

In the section on biological weapons, Cornish claims that acquiring an agent would not be easy, that manufacturing a quantity of the agent is “not straightforward”, and that weaponizing the agent is even more challenging. Yet the Washington Post reported in September, 2006, that the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks – spores that killed five and sickened seventeen – was not weaponized.

Certain biological weapons are actually quite easy to obtain. When castor beans are processed into castor oil, ricin, a potent biological toxin, is part of the “mash” that remains. Anthrax may be recovered from manure on farms. Given the ease with which accidental E. coli outbreaks have spread, it is reasonable to assume that an intentional attack would also be relatively simple. Intentionally causing a pandemic (such as avian flu) would also constitute biological warfare.

“Recipes” for biological and chemical weapons can be located in a number of readily-available books such as The Anarchist Cookbook. The Internet also has virtually endless sources of information on chemical and biological weapons.

In the report’s Executive Summary, Cornish says:

Although the weaponization of a biological agent would be complex, requiring high-level competence in microbiology, pathology, aerosol physics, aerobiology and meteorology, for a terrorist group seeking a ‘single-shot’ biological attack, safety, reliability and predictability in both production and weaponization might not be of great concern. Delivery of a biological weapon could be a relatively straightforward matter, with a variety of dispersal means available and with more than enough suitable targets on offer.

Of course, the United States has thousands of students of Middle Eastern descent – some of whom have no reason to love America – and others whose sympathies may lie with disaffected Middle Eastern elements, majoring in those very specialties[3].

The first recognized biological attack in the United States occurred in 1984, in The Dalles, OR, when followers of Bhaghwan Shree Rajneesh intentionally contaminated salad bars in restaurants with salmonella; about 750 people were sickened.

As is the case with chemical attacks, biological attacks may not be recognized as such, due to incubation periods, etc. Again, this time lapse could allow the illness to spread far beyond the original point of release.


Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDDs) spread radioactive material over a wide area, either in conjunction with a conventional explosive device or through some other means of dispersal. They differ from nuclear weapons in that the radioactive material is not an integral part of the device (what weapons scientists refer to as the “physics package”). Fission is not used to create the blast and thermal effects normally associated with nuclear weapons; the damage is caused by the ability of the radioactive material to contaminate an area and deny its use to those without proper protective equipment.

Radioactive materials are, unfortunately, not difficult to obtain. NBC Nightly News reported on March 12, 2007, that there were 85 reported losses or thefts of radioactive materials worldwide in 2006. The losses were mostly small amounts of materials, but sufficient in quantity for making dirty bombs. The problem – from the terrorist’s point of view – is obtaining materials that are sufficiently radioactive to be usable in a weapon. Suitable materials include cobalt-60, strontium-90, yttrium-90, cesium-137, iridium-192, radium-226, plutonium-238, americium-241, and californium-252. “Weapons-grade” uranium-235 or plutonium-239 are relatively difficult to obtain, but reactor-grade materials, such as spent fuel rods from nuclear generating facilities, may be used in weapons (with a noticeable increase in size and weight, and a decrease in efficiency). Small quantities of reactor-grade materials have been reported a number of times over the past few years. However, it is reasonable to believe that any explosion that showed measurable radiation would cause wide-spread concern, if not outright panic.
Cornish asserts that working with highly-radioactive materials is hazardous, but goes on to cite researchers who say,

Some of the major international terror groups, including al-Qaeda, have not only the resources to carry out such an attack, but also the willing martyrs, whose participation would significantly reduce the cost and complexity of any protective systems needed to allow the perpetrator to survive long enough to carry out the attack.

Using martyrs willing to die for the cause obviously eliminates the need for sophisticated protective gear, and hence, reduces the cost of such a program.

Another possibility for an RDD attack would be to target an existing nuclear facility. Despite assurances by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Homeland Security, nuclear security is in desperate need of improvement. Recent studies by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and others have revealed glaring deficiencies in the security programs at nuclear plants. Simply crashing a commercial jetliner into a nuclear generating facility could create another Three Mile Island or Chernobyl.

A single RDD, detonated in, say, New York City, followed by a series of non-radioactive explosions in other major cities, would wreak havoc, in that every incident would have to be treated as a possible radiation incident until proven otherwise. Given the allegations of lying and prevarication lodged against the current administration, such proof would have to be conclusive indeed.

The political consequences of an RDD attack would include public panic, rampant rumors, conspiracy theories, and mistrust of government assurances that decontamination had been completed. Again, the Bush administration’s reputation for dissembling and their proven lackadaisical response to disasters could lead to accusations of malfeasance or even complicity in such an incident.


Much of what Americans know about nuclear weapons comes from fiction: movies such as Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Day After (1983), and The Sum of All Fears, novels like Robin Moore’s The Trinity Implosion (1976), or the occasional documentary on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or Bikini Atoll.

Cornish stresses that the technology and equipment required to fabricate a nuclear device are hard to come by and extremely expensive. This is hogwash. Tom Clancy, in the “afterword” to the book version of The Sum of All Fears, notes he was able to obtain detailed schematics and specifications by mail, at minimal cost and apparently without any verification of the uses to which he was to put the information. Many of the technologies developed in nuclear weapons research have found widespread use in non-weapons applications (Clancy mentions electronic firing circuits being slightly modified and used in stereo speakers). The chemistry involved sounds incomprehensibly convoluted, but is (apparently) readily understood by anyone with a couple of college-level physics courses under his or her belt. The Sum of All Fears describes a small band of terrorists assembling a make-shift nuclear bomb using materials recovered from an Israeli weapon, with the bomb being detonated at a Super Bowl game.

The development of nuclear weapons since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs have resulted in devices that are many orders of magnitude more powerful than the WWII weapons, with yields measured in megatons, rather than the kilotons achieved with the earlier devices, yet smaller, simpler, and much less expensive to construct. The physics and chemistry involved are thoroughly understood. The computational requirements of the original Manhattan Project can now be met by even the cheapest home computers. Manufacturing equipment is readily available. Assuming a group could obtain suitable radioactive materials, constructing a nuclear device would not be as difficult or cost-prohibitive as some would have us believe.

As is the case with RDDs, obtaining the necessary radioactive materials is far from impossible. University of Alaska researcher Jason D. Brown, in a study entitled Catastrophic Terrorism: An Examination of Literature Concerning the Possibility of Terrorist Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, points out that a mere 10 kilograms of plutonium-239 or 52 kilograms of uranium-235 will create an efficient fission weapon.

Much easier than trying to build a nuke, however, is buying or stealing one. Rumors have been rampant for years that the former Soviet Union has “misplaced” (i.e., lost or possibly sold) an undetermined number of existing nuclear weapons – some as small as a large suitcase. According to Cornish, “The Soviet nuclear arsenal was estimated, in late 1991, to include the following: 9,357 strategic warheads; 15,000–30,000 tactical warheads; a stockpile of HEU [highly-enriched uranium] in excess of 1,000 tonnes; and a stockpile of Pu-239 in excess of 100 tonnes.”

Smuggling a nuclear device into the United States would present no problem for a dedicated terrorist group. Given that less than ten percent of the cargo containers entering the country are screened in any manner, and that most major cargo ports are in or near densely populated urban areas, it makes sense that terrorists would chose that method.

Another possible method (although one that would require the cooperation of a major corporation) would be to conceal the device(s) in consumer goods brought into the country. Novelist Clive Cussler, in his book Dragon, describes small nuclear devices concealed in automobiles being imported into the United States.


What are the chances of a terrorist group using or attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against the United States? In the phrase used by almost every crisis management professional, “It’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when.’” Given the history of terrorist attacks on American soil – a history going back to the earliest days of the United States – it would be foolish to assume that we will not be hit again, especially in light of worldwide response to the American military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On a homeland security basis, we are woefully under-prepared. Despite the assurances of the US Department of Homeland Security, the government is not taking effective, cost-efficient steps to secure our nation. The Transportation Security Administration, a component agency within DHS, is completely incapable of securing commercial aircraft, never mind airports, the general aviation sector, and road or rail transit systems. The Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement units are charged with securing America’s borders, and are given billions of dollars for “high-tech” solutions, yet the best idea they can develop is a 12-foot fence along the Mexican border? The security postures of the chemical and nuclear sectors are riddled with holes, including proven allegations of collusion between inspectors and facilities to falsify “penetration test” results. Federal funding for terrorism prevention is distributed based on political concerns, rather than on a risk-analysis basis. The much ballyhooed “REAL ID” program – touted as a major security breakthrough – is nothing more than standardized driver’s licenses; as security expert Bruce Schneier has often noted, the whole program is predicated on the faulty notion of positive identification being able to identify a person’s intentions. Schneier also notes that DHS, by and large, is so busy “defending against the last attack,” they cannot effectively anticipate or plan for the next.

The medical and public health communities, which would be the first line of defense in a bioterror attack, would be unable to handle the expected surge of patients, nor would they be able to effectively distribute the severely-limited stockpiles of medications and vaccines that have been so pain-stakingly (and expensively) accumulated. Additionally, there are no plans for prioritizing administration of these medications, no plans for safeguarding the health and safety of medical responders, nor plans for caring for the families of responders (many of the police officers and firefighters who “deserted” in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina did so because they were evacuating their families, or searching for missing family members).

On a state and local level, things are no better. Interoperability of communications between emergency response agencies first came to national attention after the 1993 WTC attack, when it was reported that police, fire and EMS agencies could not talk to one another due to incompatible radio systems. New York City spent millions of dollars implementing an interagency radio system, but the radios went unused on 9-11, due to long-standing rivalries between the FDNY and NYPD. A recent study of communications interoperability conducted by the Federal government indicated that no major cities, and only a few mid-sized ones – have any sort of intercommunications ability available in disaster situations. Urban area mass evacuation plans – also recently studied by the US government – revealed similar shortcomings: the only cities awarded passing grades were those that deal with large scale evacuations on a regular basis, such as hurricane-prone communities in Florida.

Most businesses do not have business continuity or disaster recovery plans; many of the companies that do have plans in place have never tested them and hence, have no idea if they would be effective. Yet a well-practiced evacuation plan is critical to business continuity. After the 1993 WTC bombing, Richard Rescorla, vice president of security for Dean Witter/Morgan Stanly, instituted a comprehensive emergency plan, including mandatory evacuation drills for all employees on the twenty-two floors leased by Morgan Stanley. On 9-11, only six of Morgan Stanley’s 3700 employees at the Trade Center perished; those who died were security personnel (including Rescorla himself) who were assisting in the evacuation of other less-prepared WTC tenants.

Individually, we are also totally unprepared for another terrorist attack. Most families do not have stockpiles of food, water, and other necessities (which may be due to economic issues, a lack of concern, or other factors). Very few families have their own emergency plans, and fewer practice them. The families that do have “72-hour kits” and emergency plans tend to be the families of first responders.

What does all this doom-and-gloom mean?

It means that when a terrorist group – either domestic or foreign – decides to attack the United States, we will not be prepared. We will be unable to cope, whether on a personal, family, community, state, or national level. Panic will ensue in affected areas and possibly nationally, depending on the type of attack. Many may die unnecessarily. We will descend into a panicky, frustrated need to strike out; a lack of specific knowledge at whom we need to strike out may cause retaliation against innocent persons or groups. The political and economic impacts would be considerable.

If a terrorist group were to use a weapon of mass destruction against the United States, the actual impact would depend on a number of factors, among them:

  • The type of weapon used;
  • The size or strength of the weapon;
  • The number of weapons used;
  • The location attacked; and
  • Weather conditions.

Chemical Weapon

Depending on the type of agent used, the immediate effects would probably be localized, but the psychological effects could potentially be national in scope. For instance, if a nerve or choking agent (such as sarin or phosgene) were released in the Javitts Convention Center in New York City during one of the many large conventions or trade shows held there, there would be hundreds or perhaps thousands of initial casualties. First responders would be encumbered by protective gear, and would find their efficiency greatly reduced. Again, depending on the type of agent, victims may flee the scene, spreading the agent beyond the scene of release. Inauspicious weather conditions could also spread the agent beyond its original position, again enlarging the contaminated area. If the nature of the attack could not be promptly determined, medical facilities might not implement appropriate isolation techniques in time, thereby contaminating the very facilities and personnel most critical to an effective response. Delayed or improper decontamination at the scene would endanger rescuers. Scene decontamination and other mitigation efforts could turn into a long-term process, effectively denying the use of possibly critical infrastructure.

Politically, the backlash would be considerable. The populace might assume that the government was “asleep at the wheel”, especially in light of all the activities undertaken by various government agencies in the name of terrorism prevention. The current administration, based on its history thus far, would probably respond with further restrictions on personal freedoms, civil liberties and legal rights, bringing the nation one step closer to the police state that many on the left are already predicting.

Biological Weapons

Because many biological weapons have significant incubation periods before symptoms present, there is a much greater risk of the contaminant being spread far beyond the initial release point. Again, medical facilities would be overwhelmed, especially if the specific antigen were not immediately identified; unfortunately, this is likely to be the case, as most American physicians do not have much knowledge of, or experience with, biological warfare agents, nor are they trained to think in those terms when confronted with unfamiliar symptoms.

Tom Clancy’s novel Executive Orders postulates a terrorist attack against the United States using the Ebola virus, which is a virulent hemorrhagic fever, with a mortality rate of approximately 80%. The delay in identifying the agent was due, in part, to physicians initially diagnosing patients with flu or similar semi-benign ailments. By the time a correct diagnosis was made, victims had dispersed across the country, infecting virtually all parts of the nation.

Even if someone were to simply re-create the 1984 salmonella attacks, the effects would still be considerable. As we have seen with the recent E. coli outbreaks in restaurants, correct diagnosis of the condition may be delayed, with possibly tragic results. The economic consequences alone could potentially be staggering.

Again, the likely political implications would be significant, with many of the same responses as noted above for a chemical attack.

Radiological Weapons

Ever since the beginnings of the Cold War, Americans have learned to think of radiological attack in terms of nuclear weapons; the current administration drives this point home even today, with comments about “the smoking gun being a mushroom cloud.”

A relatively simple radiological dispersion device, detonated in a major urban area, would cause widespread panic, with thousands or millions trying to flee the area. Rioting, looting, and a complete social breakdown would almost certainly ensue causing additional fatalities and injuries.

Fortunately, such a weapon would be readily identified, thanks to DHS’s emphasis on terrorist use of WMD. The drawbacks include a significant lack of expertise in the first responder and medical communities, insufficient protective gear, and lack of sufficient medical resources.

Additionally, the more sensationalist sectors of the media would almost certainly blame Islamic extremists and thereby fan the already considerable fear and hatred of Moslems in their audience.

Nuclear Weapons

Should a terrorist group manage to detonate a functional nuclear weapon in the United States, we would see reactions similar to the above, but multiplied many times over. Surviving first responders and social service agencies would be overwhelmed almost immediately; medical facilities would be swamped with thousands of victims, most of whom would remain untreated. Societal norms would be discarded, and we would descend to a Darwinian survival mode. The government would almost certainly be unable to restore any semblance of order without imposing martial law.

Decontamination and mitigation efforts would be delayed and possibly ineffective. The scene of the attack could be rendered uninhabitable for years or possibly centuries (the area around the Chernobyl reactor will be unsafe for human entry for hundreds of years).

The economic and political consequences would be virtually incalculable, depending on the specific location attacked. Local governments – even if they were to survive the attack – would cease to function, and would have little or no recourse other than some version of martial law. State governments in the affected area would probably experience similar paralysis. Based on proven deficiencies in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, expecting prompt, effective Federal assistance is a pipe dream.


No expert believes that we have seen the last of terrorist attacks on American soil, and most experts agree it is only a matter of time before some terrorist group develops or obtains a weapon of mass destruction and uses it against the United States. When that time comes – and it is “when”, not “if” – American society will be unprepared and will not be able to effectively cope with the attack, or its aftermath.

In fact, it is entirely conceivable that the only segment of American society that would survive is the “survivalist” movement, composed primarily of far right wing anti-government extremists, white supremacists, and militia groups. As the main segment of American society left intact, they would guide the recovery efforts and, hence, change the face of America into something completely different from what it is today.

[1] There has been little terror activity from the left of the political spectrum since the 1980’s, due in part to the effectiveness of the government in infiltrating these organizations. The decline of the worldwide Communist movement may also have robbed some left-wing groups of their ideological foundation and patronage.

[2] The two-letter abbreviations are military codes, based on the country of origin (first letter) and position in a development sequence; For example, tabun was developed in Germany (Gx) and was the first agent developed by the Nazis (xA), and was followed by sarin, or GB.

[3] This is not meant to imply that only the Middle East breeds terrorists. As we have seen with Jose Padilla, John Walker Lindh, Richard Reid, and others, terrorists and their sympathizers can come from any cultural or ethnic background. Reference to individual members of any political, ethnic, or religious group does not imply that all members of that group are terrorists. Terrorists represent a small minority in any larger social context.

[4] There were 2700 employees in the South Tower, and another 1000 in 5 World Trade Center.