Pork and waste. Six years after the fall of the Twin Towers, the devastating blow to the Pentagon, and the inspiring courage of the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93, anti-terrorism funding is an exercise in pork-barrel spending and high-profile projects of dubious value.
On the one hand, we have money being spent on petty projects designed to defend “targets” that are more at risk from a meteor strike than a terrorist attack, like the town of Madisonville, Texas. As reported by The Dallas Morning News, the town, population 4,200, used a federal homeland security grant to purchase a $30,000 customized trailer. The trailer can be used as a mobile command center, but city officials admitted it is more likely to be used as an information and first-aid booth during the town’s annual mushroom festival. Or there’s the story of Dillingham, Alaska, population 2,400. Last year, the Anchorage Daily News noted that Dillingham—which doesn’t have a single street light—had received $202,000 dollars in homeland security funding to purchase surveillance cameras.
On the other hand, the danger of big, headline-grabbing threats has been ameliorated to a limited extent—but these threats, like dirty bombs or bioterrorism, have always been inherently unlikely to come to pass on anything like the apocalyptic scale feared by some.
Ironically, in our effort to thwart terrorists, we’re making things easier for them. Without lifting a finger and starting down the long, difficult, and expensive road of actually making a viable biological, chemical, or nuclear weapon of mass destruction, the terrorists have managed to distract us with the specter of such a device. Meanwhile, we remain vulnerable to other, less dramatic but perhaps much more realistic lines of attack.
Let’s start with dirty bombs, a staple of media-fed fears. In the typical scenario, a group of terrorists steal a few ounces of radioactive material like cobalt 60 from a food irradiation facility. This cannot be used to make a nuclear bomb, but it gives a lethal radiation dose in close quarters. The terrorists wrap the cobalt 60 around a conventional explosive, detonate it, and shower a city with deadly fallout.
To detect dirty bombs in the offing, gamma and other radiation detectors have been deployed to airports and seaports as well as police departments around the country. But there are still many unprotected ports. If drug cartels can regularly sneak tons of narcotics into and around the country, surely terrorists can do the same with a much smaller cache of radioactive material.
What is really keeping us safe is probably not those radiation detectors but the basic physics of trying to carry out a radioactive attack. In order to contaminate a large area with enough radioactive material to pose a major health hazard, the dirty bomb would have to be packed with so much cobalt 60 (on the order of a few ounces in this case) that the terrorists would die of radiation poisoning within minutes of exposure to their own weapon.
A practical dirty bomb’s main effects would be from fear, not radiation, with both the Department of Homeland Security and the American Institute of Physics predicting few deaths from cancer or radiation poisoning, even in densely populated areas. “The radioactivity released by dirty bombs is not life threatening,” says Angelo Acquista, former medical director of the Office of Emergency Management in New York City and author of The Survival Guide: What to Do in a Biological, Chemical, or Nuclear Emergency. Writing in MIT’s Technology Review, Richard Muller, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, calculated the radiation exposure—measured in a unit known as the rem—that city residents would receive from a practical dirty bomb. His analysis concluded that no one would receive sufficient radiation to induce radiation illness, let alone death, and that the long-term risk of developing cancer was only fractionally increased.
But with lawmakers and government agencies ratcheting up the rhetoric about dirty bombs in their lobbying for more funding, the average citizen can hardly be blamed for considering dirty bombs a grave threat—a perfect example of well-intentioned efforts that would amplify, not dampen, the impact of a terrorist attack.
Bioterrorism is another overhyped threat. According the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, based in Washington, D.C., since 2001 federal and state governments have spent $41.5 billion combating bioterrorism, with another $6.8 billion on the way. The money has been spent on things like improving sensors to detect an attack and on building up a stockpile of drugs to combat various pathogens like anthrax. Faced with the prospect of terrorists releasing a bioweapon that spawns a deadly nationwide epidemic, quickly overwhelming hospitals and other health services, surely this seems a reasonable outlay.