By Anna Merlan
By Roy Edroso
By Carolyn Hughes
By Chuck Strouse
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Weinstein
By Tessa Stuart
Washington has traded its fears about a suitcase nuke for worries over "dirty bombs," conventional explosives spiked with radioactive material. Citing its own analysis, the Israel-based Debka.com said in late November that the Pakistani man who was arrested and died in a New Jersey jail had been working as a mulecarrying the makings of a dirty bombwhen he came down with radiation sickness. The telltale mark, according to the intelligence Web site, was gingivitis.
Debka also reported that another man thought to be a nuclear mule was arrested while crossing from Jordan into Israel, with the same symptoms as Mohammed Butt.
Dade Moeller, a former Harvard professor and radiation expert, says gingivitis could have resulted from acute exposure, the kind "Japanese bombing victims" faced. However, he cautioned, Butt would have had other symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, and, most importantly, burns.
Chuck Davis of the New Jersey attorney general's office says no marks were found on Butt's body, so the medical examiner never looked into the possibility of radiation exposure. The man died of a heart attack, Davis says.
Moeller thinks mules would be in danger if they were carrying enough radioactive material to construct a dirty bomb. "I would fear for them," he says. He cites an example from Brazil, where kids got their hands on a highly radioactive capsule originally used for medical purposes. "The children played with the powder because they thought it was pretty," he says. Some of them stashed the stuff in their pockets; several subsequently died.
Some military experts believe a dirty bomb is just around the corner. The International Atomic Energy Commission reports Russia alone has stopped over 600 different attempts to smuggle nuclear material since 1998. In October, The Weekly Standard cited a 1999 Air Command and Staff College report which characterizes dirty bombs as a "credible threat" and predicts that "a radiological terrorist attack will probably occur in the near future."
Yet dirty bombs seem surprisingly ineffective, at least in theory. "Terrorists could use conventional weapons and cause the same amount of damage," said Fred Wehling of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "The fear factor is actually much greater than the potential damage."
Most people aren't taking dirty bombs seriously, but this faulty sense of security is itself a danger, especially to first responders. "Most medical personnel, firemen, and policemen would not be able to tell if they were dealing with a dirty bomb," Wehling explains.
Patrick Garrett, a defense analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, says the U.S. is really the only country with a history of using dirty weapons. During the Gulf War, the armed forces used depleted-uranium bullets. The uranium in these tank shells was not weapons-grade, but it is hard enough that the shells "cut through tanks' armor like butter," Garrett says. The long-term impact is unknown, but Garrett guesses that "whoever survived probably has to deal with cancer."
As homeland security chief Tom Ridge's vague Christmas alert enters its second week, official Washington is in hysterics after suddenly discovering what everyone else knew long agothere is no evacuation plan should the city be struck by a massive terrorist attack, whether nuclear, biological, or chemical. To help remedy this, members of Congress have all been given communication kits that alert them to incoming fire, and District hoo-hahs have received phones with special codes.
Washington State congressman Brian Baird is pushing a proposal for governors to appoint temporary representatives in case the Capitol gets hit and the current members are killed. Officials are also planning a temporary capitol at nearby Fort McNair if need be. "It is not out of the realm of the possible that something major would happen in Washington and we would have to actually implement all of these plans and we would have to get people out," says Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety.
Sally Quinn of The Washington Postis conducting a one-woman campaign to get people ready for the worst. She recommends everyone carry the same emergency pack used by staff at Children's Hospital as part of that facility's "Code Purple" response to an attack. The pack contains rubber gloves, bottled water, nutrition bars, and an N95 gas mask. This last item, Quinn reports, has been made available to all Postemployees, too. It gives "some protection against many chemical agents," she writes, "and would certainly come in handy if you were caught in a cloud of smoke or dust."
While the Pentagon won't confirm them, there are continuing reports of many more American casualties than revealed by officials. Using the pseudonym Andrei Sukhozhilov, a reporter for London's Institute for War and Peace Reporting managed to slip into an Uzbek air base used by the U.S. military and saw for himself choppers arriving with wounded Americans. "They lifted out five wounded men on stretchers and loaded them into waiting vehicles," he writes.