The U.S. government last
month dispatched several nuclear scientists with sophisticated radiation
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
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
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
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.