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Baltimore Harbor, November 2002
Watch your step," said Sergeant George McClaskey. The police launch strained against its tether, grinding on the tires and rubber padding that had been slung along the dock. It was an old craft, dating back to the 1960s, and much weathered. The blue paint on its patched hull was faded. Its gunwales were pockmarked from countless collisions, and soot from its old diesel engine caked the icy stern. But its partially enclosed wheelhouse offered some protection from the biting wind. "Hope you're wearing long underwear," cracked McClaskey, as the deck shuddered and the launch slipped its moorings.
Baltimore's Inner Harbor spread out before us. On the south side, below the grassy slopes of Federal Hill Park, the marina slips were filled with white, gleaming motor yachts, and halyards and shackles beat noisily on the aluminum masts of expensive sailboats. In the innermost center, against the backdrop of the convention center and the retro brick baseball stadium beyond, floated the big charter boats and wooden skipjacks that took vacationers out on day cruises. And to the north, beneath the skyline, loomed the marine tourist attractions that anchored the Pratt Street Pavilions: a vintage submarine, painted gray and black with red shark's teeth on the bow, and a full-size replica of a Civil War-era frigate, the USS Constellation.
"That," said Sergeant McClaskey, craning his football player's neck toward a water taxi landing next to the Constellation, "is where I'd strike if I were a terrorist." I followed his gaze to the landing. Other than a few angry seagulls squabbling on the bulkhead, the place was deserted. But in summer, up to a quarter of a million people congregated on the Inner Harbor's piers and brightly painted promenades each weekend, catching a show at the waterside amphitheater, dining on crabcakes after an Orioles game, or taking the kids to see the dolphins at the National Aquarium. My wife and I were often among that weekend crowd, driving up from D.C. with our two-year-old daughter.
"If I wanted to create a big bang," McClaskey continued, "I'd pack a small boat with explosives"--relatively easy-to-find nitrate fertilizers or dynamite, he later elaborated, plus plenty of nails, screws, and other building materials that can double as shrapnel--"and crash it right here." The police launch slowed to an idle, sinking back into its own wake. For a moment we drifted, and I stared at McClaskey. Cops weren't supposed to say things like that, to plot like al Qaeda. At least, they never had before. But McClaskey wasn't being irresponsible or tipping off terrorists to what they probably already long knew. (After all, for any organization that could have dreamed up 9/11, smashing a boat into a wharf was the creative equivalent of child's play.) No, McClaskey was on the right track. He was adapting to the times. Imagining terrorist scenarios was part of any public safety official's job description post-9/11.
The launch bobbed in the choppy waters. McClaskey paused long enough for me to envision the gruesome consequences of a strike on the pier. "It'd be a catastrophe," he finally declared. "It would take forty-eight hours just for the tide to flush out the bodies from under the boardwalk."
This nautical factoid he had learned from experience, from nearly twenty years on the force fishing out dead drug dealers, drowning victims, and the occasional jumper from the Fort McHenry Bridge. But the big Irishman made it clear with an uncharacteristic sigh that his new counterterrorism assignment was truly uncharted territory. In the war on terror, he and most of his fellow officers were mere rookies, suddenly forced to play catch-up to the rest of the world. "Before 9/11," he said, "it never even occurred to us to consider the waterfront as a source of danger." Now perceived dangers lurked around every wharf. "Look at that barge," he added, nodding toward a tug hauling a barge full of diesel fuel off in the distance. "A beautiful weapon."
More grisly details followed. Ram the promenade with the fuel barge, said McClaskey, and deaths would not be the only tragedy. There would be dire economic repercussions, as well. Baltimore had spent more than $1 billion revitalizing the tourist district. Thousands of jobs had been created in the effort, and the project was a national showcase for urban renewal. But just one suicide bomber could undo all of that good work, sow panic, sink the whole town. Such was the nature of terrorism; the damage was never isolated, as the attacks on New York and Washington had so painfully demonstrated. By some reports, 9/11 had cost the U.S. economy anywhere from $75 billion to several hundred billion. The collateral damage was immeasurably higher when one considered how stock exchanges around the world had plunged--the Nikkei, the DAX, the CAC 40, the TSE. No one was immune to the carnage, and for cities like Baltimore, the stakes were now exponentially higher than anything the police department had ever faced before. And that was saying a lot, given Baltimore's unenviable distinction as America's drug capital. Ten percent of the city's residents, by police department estimates, were heroin addicts. In the week prior to my visit, four police officers had been shot, including one executed point blank for testifying against a local gang. The police department here had enough on its plate without having to worry about where and when extremists might strike next. But worry it did. The department's Criminal Intelligence Division, which before 9/11 devoted virtually all its efforts to the war on drugs, now spent upward of three-quarters of its time chasing down terrorist leads. The division's head, a polished and urbane young major by the name of John Skinner, was even sent to Israel to bone up on the basics of counterterrorism. And the police department's eleven-man maritime unit, whose main responsibilities until recently had included ticketing speeders and enforcing no-drinking-and-boating rules, now had far more daunting responsibilities.
Other big urban centers faced similar dilemmas. The NYPD diverted three hundred officers to a special counterterror unit. The city of Los Angeles went so far as to create its own department of homeland security, appointing ABC News terror expert John Miller as civic security czar, largely on the strength of an interview he had once conducted with the elusive Osama bin Laden. Nationally, every state followed L.A.'s lead and set up homeland security departments, and the FBI reassigned a quarter of its eleven thousand field agents to counterterror duties.
We rounded Locust Point, steamed past the towering steel hulls of thousand-foot-long Navy LMSR transport ships that would soon take tank brigades to Iraq, and entered the industrial sector of the port. Here the list of potential terrorist targets multiplied: oil terminals flying BP's and Shell's corporate colors, unprotected liquid natural gas storage tanks, exposed coal-fired power stations, and large petrochemical facilities with flimsy chain-link fences. Even the Domino sugar refinery, with its sticky-sweet flammable dust, posed a potential security threat: "Most people don't think about it," said McClaskey. "But that's a giant bomb."
Across Curtis Bay and the exposed trusses of the Fort McHenry Bridge, under which all freighters and tankers pass before docking, thick white plumes rose from smokestacks of the CW Grace chemical plant. "They make some really nasty stuff there. Highly toxic," said McClaskey's colleague, Sergeant Ed Coleman, a squat, muscular man who headed the Maritime Unit. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there were fifteen thousand facilities just like it around the country that produced, stored, or used toxic chemicals. "It's mind-boggling," he added, as a wave sent salt spray over the bow and drenched his black paratrooper boots. "I pretty much see targets wherever I look." And every one of those targets could set in motion an ever-broadening ripple effect. Should al Qaeda frogmen, for instance, manage to blow up an oil terminal, the nearby I-95 tunnel ventilation systems would have to be shut down. Shut down the tunnels, and the interstate highway must be closed. Close down a section of I-95, and traffic along the entire Eastern Seaboard snarls to a stop, to say nothing of what such an attack would do to disrupt oil supplies and prices in the mid-Atlantic region or to insurance premiums of ships docking on the East Coast.
Sergeants Coleman and McClaskey were not the only public servants fretting about suicide bombers following 9/11. All across the country, officials at virtually every level of government were rushing to take stock of America's vulnerabilities, starting with the White House, which commissioned the Central Intelligence Agency to identify the 100 most likely terrorist targets in the United States. The governors of every state were asked to identify 150 of the most visible targets in their jurisdictions and another 180 secondary targets. The grim surveys were known in bureaucratese as risk assessments, and for the most part they were not made public, for obvious reasons. But they were extremely important and constituted the opening phase of the domestic war on terror. Just as environmental impact studies are required before ground is broken on major construction projects, the risk assessments would form the foundation on which the security state was built. Priorities needed to be identified, the most pressing vulnerabilities addressed. The results of the assessments would form the basis from which scarce resources would be diverted and billions of dollars of federal, state, and local funding would be allocated to shore up homeland security. The problem, of course, was that the list of targets, to quote Sergeant Coleman, was mind-boggling. Subways, sewers, shopping centers, even our food processing and drinking water systems were all now fair game to terrorist plots. Anything could be turned into a weapon: the postal service, an air-conditioning unit, a truck or train hauling hazardous materials. Passenger ferries from Staten Island, seven thousand commuters on board, could be sent careening into a passing oil tanker. Viruses could be spread, industrial facilities sabotaged. Cyberattacks could be launched, financial networks disrupted. All you need is a little imagination.
In the new threat environment, the United States has 600,000 bridges to protect and 14,000 small airports from which terrorists can wreak havoc. There are 4 million miles of paved roadways and 95,000 miles of coastline for extremists to escape on. Eighteen thousand separate law enforcement bodies need to be synchronized in any counterterror response. In addition to Baltimore Harbor, there are 361 other ports just as exposed. The United States boasts a network of 260,000 natural gas wells and 1.3 million miles of pipeline that terrorists can blow up. In New York City alone, the subway system has an astonishing 1.2 billion riders annually. Seventy-seven million passengers use its three airports annually. More than 16 million commercial cargo containers arrive by air, sea, and land every year, and all it would take for a catastrophic disaster would be for one of the steel crates to conceal a nuclear device. If we can't even put a dent in the flow of thousands of tons of illicit drugs smuggled past customs, how can we hope to stop a fifty-pound suitcase filled with fissionable material from getting through?
The list goes on and on. A four-thousand-mile open border with Canada runs through villages, homes, golf courses, and even a public library, where the stacks are in Quebec and the reading room is in Vermont. Ninety-one million people enter the country by air every year. And any one of them could be hell-bent on unleashing tularemia or botulinum toxin. No one even knows how many million illegal immigrants are already in the country, and al Qaeda sleeper cells in Detroit, Omaha, Coral Gables, or anywhere else may already be in place, biding their time.
The list of terrorist opportunities is literally limitless: movie theaters, department stores, feedlots, resorts, stadiums, and arenas--you name it. That is the drawback of living in the world's most open society, America's Achilles' heel. And the targets are by no means limited to the East Coast terror corridor between Washington and New York. Places like Cleveland or Tuscaloosa, Memphis or Minneapolis are vulnerable precisely because any attacks on Middle America would sow panic in Iowa or Indiana the way another strike in D.C. or Manhattan never could. Many people in Wisconsin or Louisiana still do not see the immediacy of the terror threat the way New Yorkers do. But after a chemical plant is blown up in, say, Tennessee, no one would feel safe, regardless of where they lived.
The grim task of cataloging the nation's vulnerabilities was the necessary first step toward ensuring that our imagination would never fail us again and that we would not find ourselves in a predicament where even residents of a small midwestern town would fear for their safety. As former assistant FBI director Stephen Pomerantz explained to me: "We have to acknowledge our weaknesses to take corrective action. And we have to recognize that we are far behind other countries in this regard."
That meant adopting the mind-set of the terrorists and drawing up lists of potential targets. Targets generally can be grouped into three broad categories: soft, medium, and hard. Of least concern are those that have a minimal impact on the national psyche. A bomb in a mailbox in a residential area, for instance, is unlikely to create a nationwide panic. It is virtually impossible to defend against, and not worth the effort. Medium-impact targets up the ante in the angst and damage they cause. Cyber terrorism can, for example, disrupt communications or financial networks. But as CNN terrorism expert Peter Bergen noted, such an attack lacks a key ingredient: drama. "Al Qaeda wants to see blood and smoke," he said. Other medium-intensity targets might include throwing a grenade on a bus or leaving a bomb in a department store. While these fulfill bin Laden's gory criteria, they are likely to be seen by the general public as localized events, unless repeated simultaneously a half dozen times in different parts of the country, which requires considerably more planning and personnel to pull off. The third category is what really keeps officials up at night: a strike that would sow fear across the land. This usually involves, but is not restricted to, an assault on critical infrastructure, on something we all use regardless of whether we live in Tucson or Tampa Bay. Statistically, an insignificant percentage of Americans worked at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. But we all fly, relying on air travel perhaps more than any other nation on earth. And al Qaeda has made us all think twice about flying. We all drink water. A lethal contamination of the water supply in any U.S. city would make us all think twice about that, too. As Pomerantz put it: "If there's a chemical attack on the subway in Chicago, you think people are going to risk riding the Metro in New York, or Washington, or anywhere else?" The most dangerous targets do not necessarily produce the biggest body counts. Rather, they have a built-in psychological component: They spread the most terror.
From the Hardcover edition.