Homeland Defense in America's heartland
Experts assess the threats to America’s infrastructure and food supply
Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh may have smashed the idea that terrorists would never strike America's heartland, but it is still easy to revert to the notion that “it can't happen here” — especially if you happen to live far away from skyscrapers and national monuments.
– Abraham Sofaer
The San Onofre nuclear power plant might be a more likely target than a soybean field in the California's central valley, but an attack could happen anywhere. Aqueducts, canals and the food supply represent substantial targets.
“We are a target-rich nation; the amount of targets we have in this country is enormous,” said Abraham Sofaer, an expert in national security and a law professor at Stanford University. “If you think about the infrastructure of this country — the power plants, the borders, the millions of containers that come into this country every year — we are going to have to take some creative measures to make the problem manageable; but no matter how manageable it, it's never going to be 100 percent successful,” he said.
Sofaer spoke at a special session on homeland security at the Great Valley Center conference May 8, 2002, in Sacramento, Calif.
Sofaer, who has served as a legal adviser to the U.S. State Department, said terrorism — and its many forms — is always evolving and mutating; and how the world regards terrorism has changed significantly over the years.
“Back in the 1960s, the kind of terrorism facing America was relatively benign: There were many hijackings, but very few of them resulted in damage or injury,” he said.
Many in the international community regarded terrorism as permissible and legitimate in certain circumstances. In the 1970s, many governments responded by criminalizing international terrorism, which resulted in about 10 treaties regarding aircraft hijacking, bombings, attacks on diplomats, hostage taking.
“Terrorism was treated as a crime rather than a national security threat,” Sofaer said. “The criminal approach to terrorism became not just a principle, but a limitation on some of government activities.”
Since Sept. 11, Sofaer believes the criminal approach to terrorism is no longer feasible because it is reactive rather than proactive.
“If you just play defense, your options are very limited. There are so many weapons that can be used against us. We saw how devastating jet fuel can be. We also have to look at chemical, biological and nuclear weapons,” he said.
“If we lived in a world where every government was willing and determined to suppress terrorism, treating terrorism as a crime would make sense, because then you could count on Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Iran to deal with the terrorists within their borders. But it became clear in the 1970s and '80s that we don't live in that kind of world,” Sofaer said.
At that time, the United States employed the tactic of pressuring states harboring terrorists by isolating them diplomatically and imposing economic sanctions, in addition to prosecuting terrorists when they were captured in hopes that would deter them. By contrast, President George W. Bush implemented a military strategy to attack terrorists abroad, before they get to this country.
Other panelists at the conference worried that domestic policies employed to catch terrorists are self-defeating. Panelists shared stories about hassles at the airport and what appeared to be unreasonable searches of the elderly, disabled, and even themselves.
– Abraham Sofaer
Chief Venegas recalled being recently snared and searched at the airport gate, and even his badge didn't get him off the hook quickly.
“We need to figure out how to be smarter [in our security efforts] and how to better treat people,” Venegas said. “Americans are very tolerant people; and since 9/11 we have been willing to put up with a lot of stuff. But people are getting tired.”
State Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced), agreed. “Our policy has to be geared at getting the bad guys and not hassling good guys,” Cardoza said. “We have to have some rationality in our policies.”
Sofaer said random tests of the airport screening system showed a failure rate of 30-48 percent for smuggling weapons through the gates.
More recently, the case of Nathaniel Heatwole severely embarrassed the Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency responsible for airport screening. Heatwole, a 20-year-old North Carolina college student, admitted to planting box cutters, matches and modeling clay resembling plastic explosives aboard Southwest Airlines jetliners in order to test airport security. The items were not found for more than a month, even after Heatwole sent e-mail messages to the TSA describing what he had done.
Sofaer said people are rightly skeptical of the airport security system and other such homeland security programs that cast a wide net over law-abiding citizens.
Sofaer mentioned the controversy surrounding former Attorney General John Ashcroft's order to detain about 5,000 foreign nationals, all of whom are from five Arab states certified as supporting terrorism.
– Abraham Sofaer
Sofaer pointed out that about 60 percent of the people living illegally in the United States are from Mexico, and who have no historical record or propensity toward terrorism.
“If someone is going to insist that we allocate the nation's resources to search everyone on an equal basis, we'll end up spending millions investigating Mexicans who we all know come here to work and have zero record of committing terrorism,” Sofaer said. “It would be irrational for us to allocate our resources with unwarranted sensitivity to somehow pretend we are fair-minded. We have 500 million people per year crossing our borders. You cannot deal with this problem with restrictions that are irrational.”
Similarly, Sofaer said it would not be feasible to severely restrict the flow of goods across the border.
“Think about it: 11.5 million containers come into this country every year. If you interfere and slow that commerce, the cost will be tremendous. We would not have an efficient economy anymore,” he said.
Sacramento Chief of Police Arturo Venegas said the government must never lose sight of the country's democratic values when dealing with terrorism.
– Arturo Venegas
“We have to strike a balance,” he said. “We cannot afford to give up our freedoms any more than we can afford to lock up government. The accessibility of our government and our ability to move about the nation is an example that has set the tone for the rest of the world.”
America's transportation system — air, highways and waterways — are its conduits of freedom, Venegas said.
“One of the greatest assets we have as a nation is the ability to move about freely. But this great freedom can also be a liability. We need to figure out who is coming into our country to destroy us versus those who are coming here for legitimate business,” he said.
Assemblyman Cardoza said the state capital is considered a target for a terrorist attack, which presents a challenge to public access and the idea of open government.
“You'll never protect our governmental institutions completely because the public needs to have access to their elected officials,” Cardoza said. “If we shut down government offices, then the terrorists win. It's very important to improve security, but we can't let them disrupt our democracy.”
Frances Winslow, San Jose director of the Office of Emergency Services, said it is critical to accurately and realistically assess the relative risk of terrorism. For example, there is a big difference between a nuclear bomb, a “dirty bomb” produced with radioactive waste and a pipe bomb containing radioactive material obtained from a hospital.
– Frances Winslow
“For most people, when they hear ‘nuclear,’ they think of Hiroshima and don't distinguish that between radioactive isotopes stolen from a hospital, but there is a big difference in magnitude,” she said. “They only need to kill enough of us to scare the rest of us — that is the purpose of terrorism.”
According to the Associated Press, the nation's infrastructure includes about 600,000 bridges, 170,000 water systems, 2,800 power plants — 104 of them nuclear — 190,000 miles of interstate natural gas pipelines, 75,000 dams, and 463 skyscrapers that are 500 feet tall or taller. All of these are potential targets.
“The targets of an attack are so varied that it will be a physical impossibility to effectively defend every target against every type of weapon,” Sofaer said.
Chief Venegas said an attack on the Central Valley, one of the nation's largest food-producing regions, could be devastating.
“We are looking at infrastructure targets — the ones that economically could bring down the country,“ Venegas said. “Here (in the Central Valley), I look at the damage that could be inflicted on agriculture through bioterrorism.”
For example, if hoof and mouth disease were introduced to the valley's pastures and ranches, it would be devastating on a scale even beyond Great Britain's 2001 epidemic. The aqueducts that traverse California would also make attractive and devastating targets for bioterrorists, panelists noted.
James Pandol, a grower in the Central Valley, said although agriculture has no central targets, bioagents can be dispersed by winds, through water and food; and rural areas generally are not well protected.
“It's easy to look at the Central Valley as bucolic and insulated from the problems of world,” Winslow said. “We need to remember it is not just weapons of mass destruction, but it could be pipe bombs or school shootings. We all need to be on the front line [of vigilance] so as a nation we can remain free.”