Dirty bomb scare prompts unusual security measures

| Thursday, January 08, 2004

The U.S. government last month dispatched several nuclear scientists with sophisticated radiation detection equipment hidden in briefcases and golf bags to scour five major U.S. cities for radiological bombs, also known as "dirty bombs," according to officials involved in the emergency effort who were quoted by The Washington Post.

The call-up of Department of Energy radiation experts to Washington, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Baltimore was the first since the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The new details of the government's search for a dirty bomb help explain why officials have used dire terms to describe the reasons for the nation's fifth "code orange" alert, issued on Dec. 21 by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. U.S. officials said they remain worried today – in many cases, more concerned than much of the American public realizes – that their countermeasures would fall short.

Even now, hundreds of scientists remain on high alert at several military bases around the country, ready to fly to any trouble spot. Pharmaceutical stockpiles for responding to biological attacks are on trucks at key U.S. military bases.

Officials said intelligence can be misleading, and some in law enforcement acknowledged that there is no way to know the actual urgency of the threats.

The terrorism crisis began late on Dec. 19, when analysts assembled what they described as extremely specific intelligence, including electronic intercepts of al Qaida operatives' telephone calls or e-mails. One fear was that al Qaida would hijack and crash an overseas flight into a U.S. city or the ocean. Another was that terrorists would shoot down an airliner with a shoulder-fired missile.

U.S. officials also became concerned that a large, open-air New Year's Eve celebration might be targeted. While the perimeters of football stadiums can generally be secured, outdoor celebrations are much more vulnerable, they said.

On the same day that Ridge raised the national threat level to orange ("high") from yellow ("elevated"), the Homeland Security Department sent out large fixed radiation detectors and hundreds of pager-size radiation monitors for use by police in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, Houston, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Detroit.

Homeland Security also ordered the dispatch of scores of Energy Department radiation experts to cities planning large public events. One of them was Baltimore, where Coast Guard and Energy Department personnel patrolled the waterfront with sophisticated radiation detectors in preparation for a New Year's Eve party at the Inner Harbor.

Dozens of others fanned out in Manhattan, where, on New Year's Eve, up to 1 million people were scheduled to gather in Times Square. Still others converged on Las Vegas, home of a huge yearly New Year's Eve party on the Strip, and around Los Angeles, where the Rose Bowl parade on New Year's Day draws as many as 1 million people.