Germs and Other Terrors
I remember taking a scuba-diving course in which the first few weeks were spent in a classroom learning all the ways you could die underwater. Reading about chemical, radiological, biological and nuclear weapons (CRBN) is a lot like that. If the weeks following September 11, with all the warnings and anthrax cases weren’t scary enough, along comes a series of books outlining the dangers of nonconventional warfare that make some of the worst-case scenarios of pundits look like wishful thinking. Only one of the three books, Cordesman’s, includes material since September 11, but the others cover many of the issues that have arisen since then.
Germs was written before September 11th, but presciently anticipated the likelihood of a serious terrorist attack using nonconventional weapons. The authors, an editor (Stephen Engelberg), foreign correspondent (Judith Miller) and science writer (William Broad), all from the New York Times, investigated the topic for the paper and tell a fascinating story of the recent history of biological weapons. Their book begins with a case of bioterrorism that went largely unnoticed in this country. It occurred in Oregon in 1984 when the followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh poisoned their neighbors with the Salmonella bacteria in an effort to silence their opponents and win control of the county government. The plot was uncovered and several of those involved were convicted of crimes and hundreds of people were made ill.
The authors note that this was “the first large-scale use of germs by terrorists on American soil,” but the attack barely registered with the media or the nation’s law enforcement community. Part of the reason was the fact that it happened in a small town far from the media centers, and part was a desire not to publicize the incident for fear of inspiring copycats.
One other important finding from the case that went largely unnoticed was that the Rajneeshees had bought the Salmonella from a Maryland medical company that supplies dangerous organisms to researchers around the world and apparently had no serious security precautions in place to prevent the materials from falling into the wrong hands. The Bhagwan was not the only one to simply buy the ingredients he needed for biological weapons; Saddam Hussein went to the same lab to obtain a variety of germs, including anthrax.
The book also gives a good history of biological weapons, going back centuries to recount how armies would use their own form of germ warfare, everything from hurling the dead bodies of people infected with the plague over city walls to dipping arrowheads in manure and rotting corpses. The authors detail U.S. research on biological weapons and the even more sophisticated program pursued by the Soviet Union, which was far more extensive than American intelligence knew until the fall of the empire and the defection of key Soviet scientists who had participated in the program.
One of the most interesting chapters deals with Saddam Hussein. The Gulf War not only left Saddam Hussein in power, but failed to destroy his reserves of chemical and biological weapons. This is well-known. Less publicized is the debate that went on within the U.S. government during the buildup to Desert Storm as the military prepared to confront an Iraqi army known to possess chemical and biological weapons. Officials were faced with the dilemma of how to protect American soldiers, especially after it immediately became clear that there was not enough vaccine to go around to protect them from some of the germs. In addition, there was the sensitive issue of how to treat the other armies in the coalition. How would it look, after all, if the United States was vaccinating its soldiers and leaving its allies unprotected? The debate over what to do is particularly relevant since September 11 as officials have grappled with the question of how to protect the general public from anthrax, smallpox and other potential terror weapons.
The book by the Times team is written in the breezy journalistic style that makes for bestsellers. By contrast, Anthony Cordesman book is written with all the style and entertainment value of a bureaucratic memo specifying standards for manhole covers. Comparing the titles — Germs versus Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction — should immediately give you a clue as to the relative density of the two books.
Cordesman, a former government official and frequent TV talking head, holds the august title of Raleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic Studies. He is an insightful analyst who has built a reputation for thorough research. While this book is filled with useful and interesting information, it is difficult to find. The page proofs had the feel of a work that was rapidly thrown together to respond to the terrorist attacks. It is filled with bullets, acronyms, lengthy verbatim quotations from government reports and other analyses that are tedious and unnecessary. It is possible the final version will be different, and it would be infinitely more readable if an editor were to force Cordesman to cut and paraphrase to make the book half the length.
That said, the book is full of data and rigorous analysis of the costs and benefits associated with homeland defense. Cordesman offers some truly frightening attack scenarios, which include planting smallpox in the air duct of an aircraft, scattering mustard or nerve gas in a populated area, and contaminating the water supply with a chemical or biological agent. The book is at its best when Cordesman analyzes the weapons themselves, but the details are well beyond what most people need to know. Still, the bureaucratic approach fits the intended audience of beltway insiders and provides a detailed blueprint for pursuing an effective means of homeland defense, one that implies the creation of a much more imposing institution than the newly formed office led by Tom Ridge.
The biggest substantive flaw is his conclusion that the U.S. is a target of terrorism primarily as “an extension of theater-driven conflicts.” This suggests that Islamic fundamentalists, such as Osama bin Laden, target the U.S. only because of America’s role in the Middle East rather than because they view American values as antithetical to Islam. Cordesman’s argument also suggests that the elimination of regional disputes (read the Arab-Israeli conflict) will remove, or at least reduce, the motivation for terrorists to attack United States targets. A good response to this is actually provided by Paul Pillar, who quotes former counterterrorism coordinator L Paul Bremer in his book, Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy: “[Bin Laden] doesn’t like America. He doesn’t like our society. He doesn’t like what we stand for. He doesn’t like our values. And short of the United States going out of existence, there’s no way to deal with the root cause of his terrorism.” And what is true of bin Laden is also true of other terrorists, especially the Muslim groups.
Pillar, a former counterterrorist official at the CIA, devotes most of his attention to the broader foreign policy issues that Cordesman skirts. His book is the one that has been most outdated by events, though, to be fair, he expresses the conventional wisdom prior to September 11 that CRBN terrorism was unlikely.
One of Pillar’s interesting observations, which is particularly apropos given what has come to light about the attack on America, is that some terrorists do not necessarily have a political objective, but may simply wish to inflict pain. What he calls an “ad hoc terrorist,” such as World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Youssef, is not necessarily a part of an organization, can’t be deterred and is unafraid of punishment. Despite the government’s public campaign to pin the September 11 attacks on Osama bin Laden, the hijackings and anthrax letters fit the pattern of the ad hoc terrorists.
Pillar also rightly focuses on the danger of Islamic terrorism, noting that all of the major anti-U.S. terrorist attacks in the 1990s, except Oklahoma City, and several of the most prominent ones in the 1980s, were perpetrated by Muslims. He makes the obligatory politically correct remarks that the Muslim world is not monolithic, but also documents the clear animus of Islam toward the West. A key passage notes the misperception, prevalent in the Islamic world, that “the United States is anti-Islamic, and that virtually everything it does in the Islamic world is part of an effort to weaken, control, or destroy Muslims.”Thus Muslims believe the West is at war with Islam, no matter how vigorous the denials by U.S. officials. In fact, a war is going on, but it is one-sided, with much of the Islamic world at war with the United States while we profess our neutrality.
Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy describes various terrorist organizations and strikes one particularly false chord when Pillar equates Palestinian extremists with the radical Jewish group Kahane Chai. Whereas the Palestinian terror groups have thousands of members, enjoy widespread support and are considered freedom fighters who are allowed to operate with impunity in the Arab world, the Kahane Chai was outlawed in Israel and its followers number no more than a handful. Pillar mentions the case of Baruch Goldstein, a fanatic who shot up a mosque in Hebron and intimates a similar incident could occur again. The massacre in Hebron, however, was extraordinary, and is raised repeatedly because it was so atypical. By contrast, the Palestinian groups he mentions, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, regularly perpetrate suicide bombings and other heinous terrorist attacks that are a far greater threat to peace than the far more remote possibility of another Goldstein-type killing spree.
Sounding like President Bush, Pillar says the war on terrorism “requires long, patient, persistent effort,” but he breaks with the President when he concludes that “terrorism cannot be ‘defeated,’ — only reduced, attenuated, and to some degree controlled.” But Americans want to win the war, and even Bush’s repeated calls for patience are unlikely to erode this unreal expectation.
If you want to get a rudimentary understanding of the threats we face without being put to sleep, Germs is your book. If you work in the administration or staff a key committee related to security, then take Cordesman’s volume to bed and you’ll be rewarded with detailed guidance for writing legislation, building a bureaucracy and implementing a strategy for addressing nonconventional threats. And if you want to better understand the political context in which the war on terrorism will be fought, then Pillar is the book to read.
About the only comfort one can take after reading these books is that the use of CRBN has so far been remarkably rare and ineffective. The fact that progress in genetic engineering offers not only the possibility for great medical advances but the likelihood of the development of more dangerous biological weapons is not a thought that makes for a peaceful sleep.
Had these books all been published prior to September 11, they would have been largely ignored and treated with the same apathy as the many others written on the subject of nonconventional weapons. Now, however, these authors, who might have been dismissed as Chicken Littles, have a receptive audience that already believes the sky has fallen.