CIA Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt warns that a new terrorist attack is unavoidable, despite all efforts to prevent it and the fact that the CIA is now “stealing more secrets” than ever.

“Now for the hard truth. Despite the best efforts of so much of the world, the next terrorist attack — it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” Pavitt says. “With so many possible targets and an enemy more than willing to die, the perfect defense isn’t possible.”

Pavitt says mounting foolproof countermeasures against terrorism would require sacrificing many of civil liberties that define America and would create the kind of society that “is not worth defending.”

Pavitt is in charge of all clandestine operations conducted by the CIA. Law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. are on heightened alert after the FBI issued at least two terrorism warnings recently. The FBI says it has intelligence about attacks being planned against financial institutions in northeastern states and against shopping malls.

Pavitt dismissed charges the CIA was caught unaware by September 11 suicide attacks and says the CIA knew the al-Qaeda network was planning a major strike. But because al-Qaeda carefully screened its recruits and sharply limited the number of people who knew the vital operational details, learning about the coming attacks was next to impossible.

“Against that degree of control, that kind of compartmentation, that depth of discipline and fanaticism, I personally doubt … that anything short of one of the knowledgeable inner circle personnel or hijackers turning himself in to us would have given us sufficient foreknowledge to have prevented the horrendous slaughter that took place on the 11th,” Pavitt says.

Pavitt says the CIA never left Afghanistan after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from the country and continued to collect intelligence there throughout the civil war that followed. This information was vital during Operation Enduring Freedom, which was launched after the 911 terror strikes. “How we knew who to approach on the ground, which operations, which warlord to support, what information to collect?” Pavitt says. “Quite simply, we were there well before the 11th of September.”

This contradicts the common belief that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan began on October 7. Pavitt says CIA paramilitary teams “trained not just to observe conditions but if need be to change them” were on the ground in Afghanistan “within days of that terrible attack.” Hundreds of CIA operatives are in the country right now, hunting down the remnants of the al-Qaeda network and the Taliban regime.

Pavitt says, “Today, the year 2002, I have more spies stealing more secrets than at any time in the history of the CIA.”

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The nation has made great progress in preparing for a bioterrorist or chemical attack, witnesses told a U.S. Senate Committee, but important gaps still remain to be filled.The Department of Health and Human Services “has been working at breakneck speed to build our bioterrorism preparedness,” Tommy Thompson says. “We continue to get stronger every day.”

Thompson says the department has consolidated its efforts with a “bioterrorism dream team” headed by noted expert D.A. Henderson, which will coordinate the work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and other public health agencies.

Thompson says that the department will assemble enough smallpox vaccine for every American by this coming October, which “nobody thought could be done.” But Thompson still has concerns about food safety. Currently, the department has only 125 food inspectors for 175 ports of entry, and only about 2% of food imports are inspected.

“At baseline, public health agencies around the U.S. have a limited capacity to drop everything and immediately begin an outbreak investigation; many cannot even find the human resources to answer an emergency hotline 24 hours per day,” says Dr. Thomas Inglesby, of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. “The chief of infectious diseases at one of America’s best hospitals said in the midst of the crisis that he had to get his medical information from CNN.”

Inglesby warns that the threat will only increase in the coming years, as “the biotechnology used to create bioweapons will become far more powerful, more available and less expensive….What used to take a highly skilled term of scientists to accomplish can now be done in rapid fashion with automated kits in an afternoon.”

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Monitoring the sales of common drugs like aspirin or cough syrup might tell authorities when an anthrax attack is in progress. Early detection of disease outbreaks has become a crucial issue in the threat of bioterrorism. Statisticians at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh have devised a way of detecting outbreaks by monitoring sales of non-prescription drugs such as cough medicine.

One advantage for any would-be bioterrorist is that even a fairly serious infectious disease would have to spread for a few days before medical authorities realized something unusual was going on. Many of the diseases likely to be used by bioterrorists, such as anthrax and even smallpox, start out feeling like flu. Stephen Fienberg and his colleagues think that an unexpected spike in sales of non-prescription drugs might be the first warning of an outbreak, especially of inhalational anthrax, which starts with a cough. They think that if cough medicine sales in an area were 36 per cent above normal, an anthrax outbreak could be found there within a day.

In order to determine this, they had to filter out the data to account for winter cold seasons. Then they looked to see how small an outbreak could be detected by fluctuations in sales. Their drug sales analysis would not have detected the anthrax attack in the autumn of 2001, since it infected less than two dozen people. But sales data that reveals where purchasers live could help investigations by revealing disease clusters. The data is available daily, even hourly, because most large retailers have automated systems that track the flow of merchandise.

To feel safer, read ?No Such Thing as Doomsday? by Philip Hoag, click here.

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