New York officials prepare for an `unthinkable' attack

City and federal agencies planning for effects of catastrophic weapons

February 15, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - The New York Police Department, working with city health officials, federal authorities and other agencies, has been preparing for a possible attack with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, perhaps the most daunting threat facing municipalities in a post-9/11 world.

Meeting in secret and conducting complex drills, the department has brought together government agencies in a broad effort for much of the past year. In doing so, it has put together a program that national security and law enforcement officials describe as unrivaled among American cities.

Police officials say special units have trained and drilled, for instance, to board cruise ships from helicopters and piers and have begun reviewing floor plans of most large Midtown theaters, conducting exercises inside some to improve their ability to respond to a possible attack, in the aftermath of the deadly siege of a Moscow theater two years ago.

This spring, city and federal officials say, the police will work alongside the city health department and other agencies to open a pilot program that they hope will enable officials to test the air across the city for biological agents quickly and constantly.

The department has also begun to prepare for its role in a sweeping citywide plan to get antibiotics or vaccine to every resident after a widespread attack with biological weapons, and is drafting security plans for about 200 sites that could function as distribution centers.

Officials say the department has also taken to the city's streets to conduct a drill with the city's medical examiner's office to prepare for a chemical weapons attack that would litter the streets with contaminated bodies. "We're thinking about the unthinkable - what a few years ago was the unthinkable," Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in a recent interview, saying that the preparations were not in response to a specific or direct threat. "It's something we're trying to take head-on, but the scope and magnitude of the problems are daunting."

Department officials said that much of the planning was preliminary, and much remained to be done.

And already, they acknowledge, they have recognized that some measures might be unworkable. The department, for example, has deep concerns about its ability to enforce a quarantine in all or part of the city.

"They are trying to do what Washington is supposed to be doing, but isn't," said a former national security official in the Clinton and the second Bush administrations, Richard A. Clarke.

Extensive interviews show, among other things, that the department is scheduled to begin chemical and biological training for entire units Wednesday, with the goal of having 10,000 officers ready for the Republican National Convention, which is scheduled for Aug. 30 through Sept. 2 at Madison Square Garden. The department, too, is helping to prepare guidelines so police detectives and FBI agents can conduct joint investigations with city health department epidemiologists in the event of a biological attack.

Some health department officials will also obtain top-secret security clearances so they, too, can use classified information as part of those inquiries, officials said.

The department is also preparing a plan to house and feed thousands of police officers, in some cases in city schools, to help keep them working in the aftermath of a catastrophic attack.

Early detection, experts have long argued, is perhaps the most important aspect of a response to a biological or chemical attack. And so for months, New York has been trying to acquire the most sophisticated detection equipment available.

To that end, the city has been working with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, developers of the Autonomous Pathogen Detection System, or APDS. These devices not only continuously monitor the air but automatically detect and identify, through multiple, simultaneous tests, the presence of more than 100 different bacteria or viruses - within 45 minutes.

Fully automated, they operate 24 hours a day for a week without servicing or human intervention, said John M. Dzenitis, a Livermore engineer in charge of the program.

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