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The next wave of terror

Scenario planners trying to predict the unthinkable

Kevin Fagan, Chronicle Staff Writer Sunday, October 28, 2001

Imagine your most unthinkable nightmare of the next terrorist attack. Now try to imagine something even worse.

Maybe then you'll come close to what scenario planners -- experts who craft models for any manner of disaster -- are trying to prepare for in America.

The nation has fired up its most imaginative thinkers to try to map out what could be the next wave of terrorism, and the picture is not pretty. The operating premise is that the hijackings and anthrax attacks are a tepid warm- up for a truly big assault -- which could range from massive truck-bomb explosions to infecting millions with disease to nuclear annihilation -- and that we're not fully ready to combat it.

Now here is the silver lining in that dark cloud: These are simply the worst-case scenarios, not reality. Yet.

In the days after Sept. 11, critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere made much of their belief that America's vulnerability to the aerial broadsides was less a failure of intelligence than a failure of imagination. Accordingly, the Army,

CIA, weapons labs, even financiers and Hollywood writers are trying hard to make sure that doesn't happen again.

And with the nation already on edge over daily reports about the spread of anthrax, the heat is on to get the schematics done fast. Preparations are sprouting coast to coast.

At the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists are quietly outlining ways chemical, biological and nuclear sneak attacks could be carried out, and perfecting tactics to counter them. Using data from previous disasters, including the Three Mile Island nuclear leak, they have already created evacuation plans for heads of state attending events that get hit by firebombs or crop-dusters carrying poisons.

In Washington, D.C., the Pentagon is crafting scenarios for handling suicide bombings or gas attacks in crowded plazas, and analysts are assessing how to keep the country running if Congress is obliterated. Dartmouth College professors are helping the military envision hackers crippling the Internet -- and even Lloyd's of London is revising formulas for how to compensate for carnage it previously thought impossible.

WAR GAME Perhaps the most intensive effort is being conducted in think tanks and labs from Florida to California, where analysts pore over the results of a unnerving domestic war game called "Dark Winter." In the simulation, terrorists spray small bits of smallpox into three U.S. cities -- and within 13 days the nation's vaccine is depleted, 2,600 people are dead, and panic riots erupt everywhere.

The idea of all these exercises, experts say, is that in the new war on our own turf, we need to pool resources and find novel ways to fight. Although even mentioning the chaotic possibilities is alarming, downplaying them is not an option.

"You can't wait. You have to make contingency planning for the absolute worst-case scenarios, then work down from there," said Stanley Bedlington, former senior analyst at the CIA's counterterrorism center. "And in this case, the planning has to go from now to long-range, meaning at least three, four years ahead."

Bedlington, who is helping the military draft scenarios, said the range of terrorist targets -- and the methods they could use -- is breathtaking.

"There are too many points of vulnerability, hundreds of thousands of places you could attack -- farms, nuclear plants, power stations," Bedlington said. "You have to start with whatever is most believable, an intuitive thing, really, and only when you've exhausted all the possibilities can you stop."

INTENSIVE SECOND-GUESSING The best way to narrow the field is for American intelligence operatives to figure out what the Osama bin Laden terror network has in mind next, and they are working overtime on that. Existing scenarios for responding to earthquakes and other natural disasters also save time, because they are blueprints for dispatching troops and firefighters and they anticipate what could paralyze a region and kill the most people.

But the most important thing is that planners not let anything limit their imaginations.

That is why Hollywood film writers and producers have been brought in on the act. Recruiting the artists whose spy thrillers and action flicks can come off as improbable may sound amusing, but no one at the Pentagon is laughing.

Several brainstorming sessions among the best strategic minds in the Army and a top-secret pool of entertainment talent were held this month to map out scenarios, and more sessions are planned.

"We've used these folks for a number of things in the past, and they are incredibly helpful," said Michael Macedonia, chief scientist at the Army's Simulation Training and Instrumentation Command. "When you have Hollywood writers in the room, you sort of shake things up a bit, stimulate things. It's no joke."

After all, he pointed out, H. G. Wells forecast biological weapons long before their time, and flip phones were first imagined on "Star Trek."

"Those kinds of people are very good at thinking outside of the box," Macedonia said.

SCENARIO PLANNING Scenario planning was most famously used by the United States for designing D-Day, and by the Japanese for preparing the attack on Pearl Harbor. The basic process is to envision an attack, draw up responses, and have the military and local agencies run a simulation. Then assess the simulation -- and run it again. This can take days, or months.

And always remember one thing, Macedonia said. Creating scenarios doesn't guarantee your safety plan will be foolproof.

"Here's the bottom line truth: They're only abstractions of reality," Macedonia said. "The only reason we do them is to package the problem, put boundaries around it. In the real world you have real emotions, real surprises, real people who get hurt."

One man who knows terrorist movie plots as well as anyone is Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote or co-wrote five James Bond movies including "Live and Let Die." He says planners have to view the offensives so far as an unfinished, three-act tragedy.

THREE-ACT SCHEME The first act, the awful explosions in New York and at the Pentagon, was very effective, he said. But the second, the anthrax mailings, has been much less so -- and that is portentous. They may be efficiently scaring people, but they're not as deadly as terrorists are capable of being.

"If I were a terrorist, I'd be planning for a big third act, and that's what we need to strategize for," Mankiewicz said. "I just hope to God they're very bad screenwriters and thought all they needed was a second act."

According to Bedlington, Mankiewicz's thinking is right on the money.

"You have to look at the possibility that somebody is just practicing, putting out this anthrax to see what the effect is," he said. "They would want to know what the first responders do, how much it rattles us. Then if it works, and in some respect it has, you do the big attack.

"That's the worst-case scenario, like it or not," he said. "So you figure out what could be next. Fast."

E-mail Kevin Fagan at

-- Martin Thompson (, October 28, 2001


Maybe they should consult with Clancy since he was writing about these scenarios years ago.

-- David Williams (, October 28, 2001.

"THREE-ACT SCHEME The first act, the awful explosions in New York and at the Pentagon, was very effective, he said. But the second, the anthrax mailings, has been much less so -- and that is portentous. They may be efficiently scaring people, but they're not as deadly as terrorists are capable of being. "

Funny. Just yesterday I read on this board that the FBI thinks the anthrax scare is unrelated to Bin Laden, and may be of domestic origin.

-- neil (, October 29, 2001.

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