A million people could die if terrorists launch a biological attack
that widely disperses smallpox, anthrax, ebola or other agents, according
to a new study that analyzes the damage that could be caused by the use of
weapons of mass destruction.
Even though such a biological attack was deemed extremely unlikely, a
team of scholars from the Brookings Institution said the Bush
administration should concentrate homeland security efforts on similar
doomsday terrorist scenarios that have the potential for causing the
largest numbers of deaths and economic losses, and the greatest
The study estimated that 100,000 people would die if a nuclear bomb hit
a major U.S. city and that 10,000 would perish in a successful attack on a
nuclear or toxic chemical plant. If weapons of mass destruction were
directed against the shipping industry, the report said, the economy could
suffer up to $1 trillion in losses.
The report, scheduled for release Tuesday, is one of the most
comprehensive studies since the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed more than
3,000 people at the Pentagon and World Trade Center and in Pennsylvania.
The authors, who specialize in economic and foreign policy studies, said
they hoped to aid policymakers such as Homeland Security Director Tom
Ridge, who is developing a national strategy, figure out where to put
Ridge's staff already has devoted much attention to "high consequence"
scenarios, such as attacks using thermonuclear devices, smallpox and other
potential weapons of mass destruction. But administration officials have
cautioned that assessing threats and assigning probabilities is difficult
because authorities don't know about all terrorist cells and because
terrorists frequently shift tactics.
Because the government and private industry cannot guard against every
conceivable kind of attack, the Brookings authors maintained that
officials should devote the bulk of resources to protecting against
nuclear, chemical or biological terrorism as well as more conventional
large-scale attacks at places such as airports, seaports, nuclear and
chemical plants, stadiums, large commercial buildings, and monuments and
"There are an unlimited number of potential vulnerabilities," said
report author Michael E. O'Hanlon. "We're going to have to spend some time
prioritizing and organizing our thinking. We really should be focusing on
potentially catastrophic attacks, meaning large numbers of casualties or
large damage to the economy."
O'Hanlon, who specializes in foreign policy studies, said the estimates
concerning economic and human losses were based on a 1993 government
report done for Congress about weapons of mass destruction, the casualties
from the atomic bombs released in World War II, previous disasters and
criminal acts, economic data and other factors.
The Department of Health and Human Services is building up a stockpile
of smallpox and anthrax vaccines, working with states to improve
early-warning disease networks, and taking other steps to prevent or
respond to bioterrorist threats. D.A. Henderson, director of the Office of
Public Health Preparedness, an arm of HHS, said yesterday that the
government is "in much, much better shape today than three months
Henderson, a physician who led efforts to eliminate smallpox in 1977,
said the study's casualty estimates were not out of the realm of
possibility for smallpox and anthrax but that the prospect of a huge ebola
attack was remote.
"Quite candidly, I think smallpox ranks way at the top," he said.
The Brookings scholars said the government should invest heavily in
technology to identify and apprehend suspected terrorists before they can
The report estimated that a biological attack in a major urban area
could create $750 billion in economic damage, and that widespread terror
against a key part of the economy -- such as shopping malls or movie
theaters -- could cost $250 billion.
The White House is seeking about $38 billion in the fiscal 2003 budget
for homeland security, including $10.6 billion for border security, $5.9
billion to defend against bioterrorism, $3.5 billion for local police,
firefighters and other emergency responders, $4.8 billion for aviation
security and $722 million for new technology. Ridge has said the amounts
are but a "down payment" in a multiyear plan.
The Brookings study said even that amount isn't enough.
Shoring up security will likely cost the government $45 billion a year,
the report said, adding that private industry will need to spend up to $10
billion annually. In some cases, new regulations will be required to bring
the private sector in line, the report said; in others, lower insurance
rates or other incentives could be offered.
Economic specialist Peter R. Orszag, another team member, said the
group sought to identify the "most glaring vulnerabilities" to help frame
Called "Protecting the American Homeland," the report credits Ridge and
the White House for setting many sound priorities, but urged more spending
on information systems for law enforcement. It also recommended
significantly higher spending on air defenses, cargo security, food safety
and cyber-security. More must be done, the report added, to protect the
nation's 12,000 chemical facilities and 103 nuclear power plants, and to
shield air-intake systems of skyscrapers from biological or chemical
In recent months, Henderson and other government officials have warned
about many of the same threats. Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, for
example, has said that the detonation of a nuclear device hidden in a
ship's cargo container would cause massive damage and indefinitely shut
down the shipping industry. Bonner said the United States must win
agreements with other countries that have "megaports" in which cargo is
checked at the point of origin.