How Safe Are We?
How vulnerable is the U.S. to a terrorist attack right now?
I'm afraid we're still substantially vulnerable. We have all these sophisticated networks—from the Internet to oil and gas pipelines to the electricity grids—and we've now seen two of those, civil air transport and mail delivery, turned into instruments to kill Americans. The networks were put together to be able to deal with random accidents. They're not designed to deal with terrorists deliberately exploiting their weaknesses to kill people.
Which of our networks is most vulnerable?
Our electrical system. We don't have enough power lines. We don't have enough small electricity generators. And it's hard to move power from one part of the country to the other. In order to be resilient to a terrorist attack we are studying ways to remedy all of these deficiencies.
How vulnerable are we to nuclear attack?
I think if it happened it's far more likely that a state, such as Iraq or Iran, would be involved than a terrorist group by themselves. We don't believe that Iraq has nuclear weapons yet, but a number of intelligence services believe that they may be only a very few years away. They might not be able to attack us with a missile, but a nuke might be put on a freighter and sailed into a U.S. port.
What about a so-called "dirty bomb"?
A dirty bomb would use less potent but more widely available radioactive materials, such as those from hospitals. If you take these materials and scatter them using a conventional bomb they can contaminate a large area, increasing the risk of cancer, for example, in the down-town area of a major city for a very long time. They are very, very hard to clean up and, unfortunately, considerably easier to deliver than an actual nuclear weapon.
What's the state of airport security?
Well, I've now lost about a half a dozen of those three-quarters-of-an-inch-long nail files on fingernail clippers at airports, so they've dealt with the nail-file threat. Seriously, I think the government has begun some improvements in aviation security, such as trying to get more qualified baggage checkers. But clearly there are some big gaps. The X-ray machines at the airports have serious deficiencies, and we need to start focusing on individuals, rather than trying to search everyone mechanically in some politically correct way.
Should we be focusing on young Arab men?
I certainly don't favor racial or ethnic profiling. But we still ought to be able to concentrate on more serious risks, such as young men from countries that have harbored terrorists or have loose control of passports, such as Belgium.
How vulnerable are we to bioterrorism?
A number of the basic techniques that are needed for rapid diagnosis and even rapid production of the vaccines and antibiotics we would need to defend ourselves exist, but some of them are not fully developed. The government has just begun funding some of these efforts, but much more needs to be done.
So a bioterror attack would be catastrophic?
It would depend on the agent. If we were hit by a regular strain of smallpox, we might well have enough vaccine. But we know that the Soviets were working on genetically modified bacteria and viruses that cause some of these diseases, and there's a strong suspicion that the Iraqis might be too.
Are there any areas of progress in our war on terrorism?
I think the most important progress has been made overseas—in the extraordinary speed with which we ousted the Taliban and most of the Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Even though we're still searching for Bin Laden, we've deprived them of their headquarters and their laboratories for making weapons of mass destruction. We've done a great deal and we've probably bought ourselves some time. The important thing now is to use that time to reduce our vulnerabilities at home.