|Copyright SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE PUBLISHING COMPANY Sep 12, 2001|
WASHINGTON -- How could a hijacked airliner fly through Washington airspace and crash into the Pentagon, the five-sided symbol of American military might?
The simple, if tragic, answer is that there is no air defense to thwart a suicide strike by an aircraft on the capital of the United States.
Until September 1994, when a Maryland truck driver with a history of mental illness flew a stolen Cessna two-seater onto the White House grounds, killing himself, there was no plan to defend against such an incident. Now, Secret Service agents have access to shoulder- fired ground-to-air missiles that can be launched from the roof of the executive mansion, said experts and government officials.
Shortly before the Cessna incident, author Tom Clancy published a novel entitled "Debt of Honor," in which a vengeful Japanese pilot flies a Boeing 747 jumbo jet into the U.S. Capitol.
Air defense around Washington is provided mainly by fighter planes from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland near the District of Columbia border. The D.C. Air National Guard is also based there and equipped with F-16 fighter planes, a National Guard spokesman said.
But the fighters took to the skies over Washington only after the devastating attack on the Pentagon, which is alongside a flight path to Ronald Reagan National Airport.
"They did not target the White House or the Capitol," said a former official with the National Security Council who asked not to be named. "You can fly right over the Pentagon. You can fly 150 feet over the 14th Street Bridge (over the Potomac River), or take out the bridge. There's no way to stop this."
The idea of using missiles to knock down enemy planes around Washington "went out of vogue" in the 1950s, said Dale B. Oderman, a retired Air Force colonel and a professor of aviation technology at Purdue University.
"It's a huge expense, and the question has always been: `What targets do you protect?' " Oderman said. "It's not a question that was even being asked until today."
But many questions will probably be asked in the coming weeks and months, as Congress assesses what steps it must take to protect the capital and whether the nation's anti-terrorism strategy has been misguided.
Although the federal government has spent tens of millions of dollars in the past decade on "homeland defense" programs designed to thwart terrorist attacks, the programs have been heavily focused on the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could cause widespread panic and mass casualties.
But that strategy may have expired yesterday.
"The terrorists caused thousands of casualties not with chemical, biological or nuclear agents, but with aviation fuel," said Joseph Cirincione, an expert on weapons of mass destruction with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"We've never seen anything like this in the modern history of terrorism," said Kimberly McCloud, research associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "They're using our own civilian infrastructure to kill us, and that is just enormous."
"No one had anticipated or predicted attacks on the scale and with the coordination of the explosions in New York and Washington," Cirincione said. But experts had warned of the possibility for years, particularly after the first attack on the World Trade Center came so close to collapsing the building with conventional truck bombs.
"This should be a transforming event in the way America evaluates its national security threats," Cirincione said.
On Monday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., presaged the attack in a scathing critique of the Bush administration's plans for a national missile defense system.
"We will have diverted all that money to address the least likely threat while the real threats come into this country in the hold of a ship, or the belly of a plane or are smuggled into a city in the middle of the night in a vial in a backpack," Biden said.
Robert Blitzer, a veteran ex-FBI counterterrorism chief who now works for a private international security firm, said defending against kamikaze air attacks on Washington is extremely difficult.
"If someone in an aircraft -- particularly a jet aircraft -- is intent on crashing into a building, there's little you can do to prevent it," Blitzer said. "You have all those planes coming down the river, what does it take to divert? Even if it was the White House, what would prevent a suicidal terrorist from taking a sharp left on his approach into National (Airport)?"
Blitzer sees more attacks in the future.
"I don't think it will be immediate," Blitzer said. But "unless we can stop this through force of arms, which we may have to do, I just see other significant attacks here and against our forces abroad, including our military and embassy people."
"It's a target-rich environment," Blitzer said. If Osama bin Laden is behind yesterday's attacks, "he could hit us at will just about anyplace unless there's some warning or intelligence" to tip off authorities.
Given the now-apparent vulnerability of the United States, additional attacks on other targets -- a dam or power system, perhaps -- cannot be discounted, said Gary R. Perlstein, a Portland State University professor and co-author of a book on terrorism. But "from what's happened before," he said, a year or two may pass before anything else happens.
"The problem is, that lulls us into a false sense of security," Perlstein said.
And Peter Cowhey, director of University of California San Diego's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, said that though other nations that have suffered bouts of terrorism "develop routines that are more security-minded, life (in the United States) goes on pretty much as usual."
"As a global power we have the potential to antagonize people around the world, and we can't avoid that," Cowhey said. "We both make friends, and we make enemies."
Experts who consult with the federal government on anti-terrorist strategies said the kinds of measures needed to protect against such air attacks might be inconsistent with the values of a democratic society.
"If you want the totality of security and protection, then you need the institution of totalitarian measures, like martial law," insisted one consultant, who said his government contract mandates anonymity. "In America, you can pay the price for freedom of movement."
The consultant, who assisted the government in preparing a security plan for President Bush's inauguration, said the Federal Aviation Administration had to issue a special declaration to close the airspace over the U.S. Capitol just before the noon swearing-in Jan. 20.
"This is a worst-case scenario that no one ever thought would happen -- and it's happened," the consultant said.[Illustration]
Credit: KNIGHT RIDDER NEWS SERVICE Staff writer
|Sub Title:||[1,7 Edition]|
|Column Name:||ATTACK ON AMERICA|
|Personal Names:||Cirincione, Joseph|