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Target: Terrorism - Chemical Weapons

Aired October 2, 2001 - 05:19   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Gas masks are selling out in stores as well as on the Internet and people are preparing for what used to be the unthinkable, another terrorist attack, but this time using chemical or biological weapons.

CNN's Mike Boettcher reports on whether the nation's health care system is ready.


MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A simulated bomb explodes on a crowded dock in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In this drill, actors play the part of the dead and injured, and the role of others who soon fall ill choking, coughing suffocating, victims of an imaginary chemical attack.

In Denver, Colorado, another simulated attack: not a bomb, but a bug, a deadly disease planted by imaginary terrorists.

Both scenarios were part of an exercise conducted 16 months ago to test the U.S. capability to deal with a terrorist attack using what are called weapons of mass destruction. The drill even included coverage by a virtual television network to give participants a real- world feel...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... where the plague outbreak now stretches over a 170-mile area.

BOETTCHER: The exercise, code-named TOPOFF, the largest such drill in U.S. history, was largely ignored. However, since the September 11 attacks, U.S. government officials have begun to raise the awareness of Americans to the possibility of chemical or biological terrorism.

However, the lessons of TOPOFF are unknown. Almost a year and a half after the exercise, a final report on what was learned during the seven day drill has not yet been released. But CNN has learned that a draft after action report on TOPOFF highlighted the need for improved nationwide public health surveillance. That is, setting up a system able to identify dangerous patterns of illness, the first indicator of a bioterror attack.

Also identified as a national priority need, teaching, equipping and exercising first responders and their commanders, who would be first on the scene of a chemical or biological attack. Highlighted, too, the need to streamline decision-making.

Dr. Stephen Cantrill is associate director of emergency medicine at Denver Health Medical Center. He was a key TOPOFF participant and said he learned his own lesson from the exercise. The already stretched U.S. health care system would be pressed to the breaking point, he believes, in the event of a weapons of mass destruction attack.

DR. STEPHEN CANTRILL, DENVER HEALTH MEDICAL CENTER: We would certainly do better today than we would have done, say, a year ago, but in terms of the resources required, they quickly outstrip anything that we have any remote possibility of getting. So it would still be a devastating experience.

BOETTCHER: Preparedness for that day, if it comes, now not just a wild concept, but according to U.S. officials, a national priority.

Mike Boettcher, CNN, Atlanta.


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, as Mike Boettcher showed in that report, the threat of germ and chemical attacks is being taken very seriously here. But on the other side of the Atlantic, people in Britain are preparing, as well.

And for some insights on that and some answers to your e-mail questions, we turn now to "Time" magazine writer Aisha Labi. She is standing by, as you see there, in London. Good morning, Aisha. How are you?

AISHA LABI, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Good morning. Fine, thank you.

HARRIS: Glad to have you with us this morning.

As you, you've seen these reports about the way people here in the States are reacting. I'm kind of curious about how things are happening over there, over the pond, as they say. Are people there in the U.K. taking this threat of chemical or some sort of biological attack as seriously and are preparing in any way that you can observe?

LABI: I don't think there's been quite the degree of panic, if I can use that word, that there has been -- I don't want to exaggerate the situation in the States -- but I don't think we've had quite that same degree of concern here in England, certainly, where I live. I think people in Britain as a whole, I think the Americans are very unfamiliar with the specter of terrorism on domestic soil.

Here in the U.K., certainly where I'm speaking to you from in London, they've dealt with IRA terrorism, for example, for many years. When you take the tube in London, you're unlikely to find a trash can on the tube because, you know, for many years there was concern that bombs would be placed there.

So I think they're perhaps a little more familiar with this threat and a little less panicked, perhaps, than in the States. I don't think there's been a run on gas masks here.

HARRIS: You know, that's the state, that's why I find that very interesting, because so much talk has been made of the possibility of chemical attacks or biological attacks, which are different from the kinds of attacks that you've seen happen there in London, where there have been bombs in trash cans. It's a different kind of threat and yet and still you don't see the people taking it or looking at it differently?

LABI: Again, I don't want to downplay the amount of concern. I think there is some concern. I think, you know, in polls that I've, that have been conducted, people have expressed concern about this. But again, there's not panic. I have not read stories about gas masks selling out of stores as I have in New York, for example.

So, again, there is concern, I think, and people are aware that this is a possibility. People are concerned but there is no panic, no.

HARRIS: Well, let's talk then about just outside of, more bigger and broader than there in the U.K. How about with the E.U., the European Union? Now, a lot of folks here in the States may not quite be familiar with the way the E.U. works, but it's not as though it's one monolith here. You're talking about a number of different countries that are working together under one umbrella.

LABI: Right.

HARRIS: Do you get a sense that they're all together on the same page here?

LABI: I think there's no, there is no significant divergence on this. But again, Americans have to keep in mind that the E.U. is not a federal system in the way that the United States is with a single head of state, with a single foreign policy. The E.U. is a collection of 15 sovereign nation states, each with its own head of state, each with its own foreign policy, each with its individual domestic concerns.

So I think they're all on the same page. There was a high level E.U. delegation lead by Javier Solana, the E.U. foreign ministers, foreign affairs chief, traveled throughout the Middle East last week, went to Iran, went to Syria. You know, they're acting with a uniform voice on this. But, you know, again, the E.U. is an assembly, a collection of 15 nation states and it's not, there's not complete unfamiliarity on every issue certainly.

HARRIS: Yes, that's, and with that in mind, then, what are you seeing and hearing coming out of the E.U. as far as a global strategy to combat terrorism?

LABI: I think at this point the focus is to stay on the same page, to be very supportive of the United States and its goals. Javier Solana, whom I mentioned just a moment ago, the E.U.'s foreign affairs chief, has referred to himself, has called himself a Powell man, that sentiment -- Powell as in U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. That sentiment has been echoed by Chris Patten, the E.U.'s foreign affairs minister, the external affairs minister, the former governor of Hong Kong.

So, again, I think at this point the E.U. as a body is entirely supportive of the USA in this matter.

HARRIS: OK. We'll see if that particular sentiment holds, and many are hoping that it does.

Aisha Labi of "Time" magazine, thank you very much. Appreciate it. We'll talk with you some other time.

LABI: Thank you very much.




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