Experts at Aspen forum address threat of terrorism
July 1, 2010
ASPEN – Emerging from the political dust plumes that still seem to be dissipating from the Sept. 11 attacks are a number of new, creative and, perhaps most importantly, cheap ways for terrorists to dismantle the way the United States operates, terrorism experts said Wednesday at The Aspen Institute’s Security Forum.
And many places that might be targeted in this country are not ready for them, they said.
“For the first time in history, small organizations have the power of destruction that once only lay in the hands of nations,” said Mati Kochavi, the CEO for an international company that manufactures state-of-the-art security systems.
Despite large strides in the way the United States can defend itself against biological, small-bomb and nuclear attacks on its soil, the government is too big an organism to combat the “fast … very smart” complexes of terrorist organizations that don’t have to worry about set protocols and procedures, Kochavi said.
Instead, terrorist entities easily move across the physical borders of different countries – a process that can restrict the governments of those nations with miles of red tape – to coordinate with each other and levy their attacks, planned and executed within a few days.
“You can’t look at them like corporate America,” he said. “They do not operate in silos.”
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Former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, who currently studies the funding and coordination of American military preparation, agreed. He said that, because of these dynamics, it would not be hard for a small organization – one without much scientific capability – to assail the country with biological warfare. That threat is immediate, Talent said.
“This is not 15 years from now,” he said, mentioning numbers in a recent study he conducted that placed a possible attack occurring in 2013.
A potential attack, he said, could be conducted in a large city during a parade by spreading pathogens from a float with a paint sprayer.
“You don’t even know you’ve been attacked until a couple of days later and you start to get symptoms,” he said.
Some terrorist organizations are looking to attack in such a way because it would be incredibly difficult for the country to recover from such an event, Talent said, citing his studies.
Dealing with a biological attack would require a federal system that empowers local governments with the resources to take care of the sick and then quarantine the infected area, he said. Those efforts would become much more complex with a contagious disease rather than a pathogen, like anthrax, which is not contagious.
“This is hard,” Talent said. “That’s the reason they’re trying to do it because it’s hard to defend against.”
U.S. officials must think the way terrorists think, said Richard Ben-Veniste, an adviser on congressional investigations, and realize that existing community infrastructure, particularly transportation systems, act very well for terrorists as vehicles for attack.
On Sept. 11, they turned airplanes into bombs. In the next decade, they could even use large-scale community forums to spread disease, said Gary Hart, a former U.S. senator who now teaches at the University of Colorado-Denver School of Public Affairs. He joked that it wouldn’t be the Aspen Security Forum.
Talent said Congress must find a central person or organization to spearhead the Department of Homeland Security, which he said currently operates under a very disjointed bureaucracy comprised of more than 80 legislative committees and other bodies.
“There are a lot of holes,” he said.
Since Sept. 11, attempts to attack the nation have been largely unsuccessful. Notable incidents include the notorious Christmas bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, whose attempt to bomb Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it approached Detroit was foiled by malfunctioning equipment, a passenger who tackled him and a flight attendant who doused flames with a fire extinguisher.
But, Kochavi, said, “We can’t rely on the incompetence of our adversaries.”