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'Dirty Bomb' Was Major New Year's Worry
 

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  'Dirty Bomb' Was Major New Year's Worry

By John Mintz and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 7, 2004

With huge New Year's Eve celebrations and college football bowl games only days away, the U.S. government last month dispatched scores of casually dressed nuclear scientists with sophisticated radiation detection equipment hidden in briefcases and golf bags to scour five major U.S. cities for radiological, or "dirty," bombs, according to officials involved in the emergency effort.



The call-up of Department of Energy radiation experts to Washington, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Baltimore was the first since the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It was conducted in secrecy, in contrast with the very public cancellation of 15 commercial flights into this country from France, Britain and Mexico -- the other major counterterrorism response of the holiday season.

The new details of the government's search for a dirty bomb help explain why officials have used dire terms to describe the reasons for the nation's fifth "code orange" alert, issued on Dec. 21 by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. U.S. officials said they remain worried today -- in many cases, more concerned than much of the American public realizes -- that their countermeasures would fall short.

"Government officials are surprised that people [in the United States] aren't more hyped about all this," said one source familiar with counterterrorism preparations.

Even now, hundreds of nuclear and bioweapons scientists remain on high alert at several military bases around the country, ready to fly to any trouble spot. Pharmaceutical stockpiles for responding to biological attacks are on transportable trucks at key U.S. military bases.

Officials said intelligence can be misleading, and some in law enforcement acknowledged that there is no way to know the actual urgency of the threats. Officials said one of their key challenges is determining whether al Qaeda is planting provocative but false clues as a diversion or as deliberate disinformation to test the U.S. response. Some foreign governments have voiced concerns that the United States is overreacting.

In recent days, intelligence has become even more difficult to sort through, officials said yesterday, because of what one described as "circular" repeating of information that has been made public.

The attention to a potential dirty bomb, for example, resulted not from specific recent information indicating such an attack but from the belief among officials that al Qaeda is sparing no effort to try to detonate one.

The terrorism crisis began late on Dec. 19, when analysts assembled what they described as extremely specific intelligence, including electronic intercepts of al Qaeda operatives' telephone calls or e-mails. One fear was that al Qaeda would hijack and crash an overseas flight into a U.S. city or the ocean. Another was that terrorists would shoot down an airliner with a shoulder-fired missile.

U.S. officials also became concerned that a large, open-air New Year's Eve celebration might be targeted. While the perimeters of football stadiums can generally be secured, outdoor celebrations are much more vulnerable, they said.

One of the U.S. officials' main fears was of a dirty bomb, in which a conventional bomb is detonated and spews radioactive material and radiation across a small area. Security specialists say such a weapon is unlikely to cause mass casualties but could cause panic and devastate a local economy.

On the same day that Ridge raised the national threat level to orange ("high") from yellow ("elevated"), the Homeland Security Department sent out large fixed radiation detectors and hundreds of pager-size radiation monitors for use by police in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, Houston, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Detroit.

Homeland Security also ordered the dispatch of scores of Energy Department radiation experts to cities planning large public events. One of them was Baltimore, where Coast Guard and Energy Department personnel patrolled the waterfront with sophisticated radiation detectors in preparation for a New Year's Eve party at the Inner Harbor.

Dozens of others fanned out in Manhattan, where, on New Year's Eve, up to 1 million people were scheduled to gather in Times Square. Still others converged on Las Vegas, home of a huge yearly New Year's Eve party on the Strip, and around Los Angeles, where the Rose Bowl parade on New Year's Day draws as many as 1 million people.

The Energy Department scientists proceeded to their assigned locations to take covert readings with their disguised radiological equipment in a variety of settings.


"Our guys can fit in a sports stadium, a construction site or on Fifth Avenue," one Energy Department official said. "Their equipment is configured to look like anybody else's luggage or briefcase."

Starting on Dec. 22, the teams crisscrossed those cities, taking measurements 24 hours a day. FBI agents persuaded businesses in some cities -- including hotels and truck-rental firms in Las Vegas -- to voluntarily turn over lists of guests or customers for comparison with terrorism watch lists.

On Dec. 29 in Las Vegas, the searchers got their first and only radiation "spike," at a rented storage facility near downtown. The finding sent a jolt of tension through the nation's security apparatus; the White House was notified. The experts rechecked the reading with a more precise machine that told them that inside the cinderblock storage unit was radium, a radioactive material used in medical equipment and on watch dials.

As rare snow fell on the city that early morning, FBI agents secured the industrial neighborhood around the site, and a small army of agents and scientists converged on the business. Soon the renter of the storage closet in question, a homeless man, happened on the odd scene and asked the officers not to cut his padlock. He supplied the key.

The scientists sent in a robot to snag a duffel bag in which the man had been storing a cigar-size radium pellet -- which is used to treat uterine cancer -- since he found the shiny stainless-steel object three years before. Not knowing what the object was, he had wrapped it in his nighttime pillow.

Officials said he has not exhibited any signs of ill health, yet. The man, whose name could not be obtained, was released.

Five tense hours after their radiation detectors had spiked, officials concluded there was no security crisis in the storage locker.

 

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