Clinton to target security threats Initiatives would address germ warfare, 'cyber-terrorism'

May 21, 1998|By Mark Matthews and Susan Baer | Mark Matthews and Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON SUN STAFF WRITER TOM BOWMAN CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- Alarmed that America is ill-prepared to defend itself against terrorists with biological weapons or computer hackers bent on mass mayhem, President Clinton plans to link government and business to confront post-Cold War security threats, officials say.

Clinton's proposals, which he is expected to announce in a commencement speech tomorrow at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, are intended to address potential threats in which the likelihood of attack is low but the results could be devastating.

Three related initiatives, still being discussed by senior administration officials last night, were expected to be outlined by the president in his speech. They include:

Appointment of a White House-based coordinator, Richard A. Clarke, for an array of government agencies and programs that are gearing up to deal with terrorist threats of various types.

A series of steps to prepare to combat "cyber-terrorism" against computer systems that govern everything from big financial transactions to aircraft flight patterns.

A much broader and better organized effort than currently exists to fight germ warfare, which can kill tens of thousands of people with small amounts of botulinum toxin, anthrax or plague.

The methods to be used range from intelligence on terrorist groups, individuals or countries that might be contemplating an attack, to quick response with vaccines to prevent widespread sickness and death.

Before his speech tomorrow, the president is expected to sign two orders, called presidential decision directives, implementing his new terrorism policies. One lays out new steps to prevent and prepare for terrorist attacks against the United States. The other spells out ways to protect the nation's information "infrastructure" from cyber-terrorists.

A secret simulation of a germ-warfare attack, conducted for high-level officials in March, showed the United States to be unprepared to deal with an act of terror involving biological weapons, according to a New York Times report in April.

A senior White House official cautioned that the speech was still in draft form yesterday and could change before it is delivered.

"He really does make them personal," the official said of the speech. Clinton's commencement addresses "take on a life of their own in the last 12 hours."

In keeping with tradition, the president is also expected to include in the speech a grant of amnesty for graduating midshipmen with minor demerits -- often a big applause line.

Clinton's appointment of Clarke responds to the widespread view that there are too many agencies with overlapping responsibility for a diverse variety of dangers considered "new threats" to national security.

The General Accounting Office, in an April report, wrote that "more money is being spent to combat terrorism without any assurance of whether it is focused on the right programs or in the right amounts."

But the proposed appointment has already generated bureaucratic conflict and could be derailed. Some agencies are fearful that a new "czar" will curb their power and trim their budgets.

Clarke, 47, is the National Security Council official responsible for issues that cut across international boundaries, such as narcotics trafficking and terrorism. A former assistant secretary of state, he has built a career in the fields of emerging national security threats, technology and intelligence.

The threat posed by biological weapons is described by experts as both devastating and remote. Iraq is reported to have produced enough anthrax to kill millions. A former Russian official, Ken Alibek, claims that the former Soviet Union developed hundreds of tons of anthrax and dozens of tons of smallpox and plague, which he said could be loaded onto bombs and missiles.

Clinton is reported to have been alarmed about America's vulnerability to biological terrorism after reading Richard Preston's "The Cobra Event," a novel about a bio-terrorism attack in New York City.

But according to Jonathan Tucker, who directs a nonproliferation zTC project at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, few groups worldwide have the technical prowess, motivation and organizational capability to launch a biological terrorist attack.

"The vulnerability is very real; the question is the threat," he said. "I think it's been exaggerated. We're dealing with a low-probability, high-consequence threat."

The institute is researching 11 instances since 1970 in which groups or individuals tried to get or planned attacks with chemical or biological weapons.

The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released the nerve gas sarin into the Tokyo subway system in 1995, tried but failed to stage a biological weapons attack.

"There are significant technical hurdles to terrorist use of these weapons," Tucker said.

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