US as a whole is prepared only to overreact to even a small act of terrorism

Posted: Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A year ago, on Christmas Day, a young Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to blow up a passenger jet in midair as it was landing in Detroit, using a bomb hidden in his pants. As he fumbled with the detonator, other passengers realized something was amiss and wrestled him to a halt.

In the 12 months since, the U.S. government has fixed the most obvious problems the "underwear bomber" exposed. The State Department says it now checks routinely to see whether potential terrorists have U.S. visas. The Department of Homeland Security says it can now block suspects from boarding U.S.-bound planes more reliably. The National Counterterrorism Center, which was supposed to "connect the dots" of intelligence from various sources, says it has improved its ability to search government databases for information on potential threats.

And, of course, airline passengers are now subjected to full-body scans - or, if they choose, to old-fashioned pat-downs.

But some of the most vexing problems have not been fixed. At the National Counterterrorism Center, for example, there's still no single database that automatically merges information from the entire spectrum. Officials say the information systems of the CIA and FBI are still mostly incompatible, both technically (different computer languages) and legally (different rules on how information can be shared). As a result, analysts still sit in front of multiple computer screens, run their searches in different systems and, in effect, connect dots by hand.

Meanwhile, terrorists are still out there, still trying to find a gap in all those defenses. When a shoe bomb didn't work, they tried liquid explosives. When those were detected, they tried the underpants bomb. When air travel became difficult, they encouraged a disgruntled Pakistani American to load a station wagon with explosives and drive to Times Square. When passenger scrutiny increased, they shifted to sending packages. And when large-scale attacks became impractical, plans for small-scale attacks began to crop up.

One of these days, one of these plots is going to succeed. It's not unpatriotic or defeatist to say that; it's realistic.

And that's why one of the most intriguing concepts in counterterrorism today is called "resilience" - preparing for terrorist attacks and minimizing their impact when they happen.

Terrorists aim to damage their opponents partly by provoking reactions bigger than the original attack. Osama bin Laden spent less than half a million dollars on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, but he caused billions in damage by prompting a shutdown of financial markets, air travel and other chunks of the U.S. economy - not to mention the war in Afghanistan and the other counterterrorist campaigns that ensued.

But if a society is prepared for terrorist attacks, makes sure its citizens know how to react when they happen, and protects its transportation, communications and utilities networks from being paralyzed by local disruptions, the impact of terrorism is reduced. It's still a problem, but it's no longer an existential threat.

"As a practical matter we should be far better prepared for these events and make them far less disastrous," says Stephen E. Flynn, a former Coast Guard counterterrorism expert who now runs a think tank called the Center for National Policy.

We can't control everything, Flynn notes, but "we are in control of how we react."

The federal government has spent a lot of time and money working on ways to protect infrastructure. And it has encouraged local governments to improve their emergency planning.

But there hasn't been much focus on public education since the days when Tom Ridge, the first secretary of Homeland Security, encouraged people to seal rooms with duct tape as protection against chemical weapons.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a website called that explains what to do in case of various emergencies, agency's publicity budget is small; it relies mostly on donated advertising time to get the word out. Homeland Security sponsored National Preparedness Month in September, but I'll bet most of us didn't notice.

Here's an example of how public education can work:

In case of most terrorist bombs, experts say, the best thing to do is to seek shelter inside a building - whether the bomb is conventional, chemical, radiological or (in the least likely scenario) nuclear. If the bomb is inside your building, get out; but if it's somewhere else, take shelter.

The greatest danger from most of those bombs may be from secondary explosions, airborne contaminants or radiation. Jumping into your car to flee merely exposes you to more risks, and when thousands of people try to evacuate, they choke the roads, cause traffic accidents and impede emergency responders.

But not everybody knows that. A 2007 survey found that in the event of a "dirty bomb," a conventional explosion that spreads radioactive material, 65 percent of people said their first impulse would be to flee. Flynn talked last year with New York City firefighters and said some of them didn't know whether they should tell people to evacuate or seek shelter in the event of an explosion. ("The policy of the department is clear, and that's shelter in place," responded Joseph W. Pfeifer, New York's assistant fire chief for counterterrorism. "We've trained everyone on that ... The real challenge is educating the public.")

"Nobody ever told the emergency responders what to do," he said.

In the case of a nuclear explosion, a study by Stanford professor Lawrence Wein estimated that a small nuclear device in Washington could kill 120,000 people if most people sought shelter in buildings - but 180,000 if most people tried to evacuate.

Brooke Buddemeier of Lawrence Livermore recently estimated that an explosion in Los Angeles could cause 285,000 deaths or injuries from fallout among people a mile or more away from the blast if they took no shelter, but only a small fraction of that number if they found shelter in brick or concrete buildings. Even a wood-frame house would provide some protection.

Flynn offers three ideas for reducing deaths and injuries in an attack: First, make sure everyone knows that if a bomb goes off, the first thing to do is seek shelter - preferably underground. Next, teach airline passengers to recognize bombs and detonators, so the next Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab doesn't have a better chance of success. And third, develop national standards for emergency planning that communities would have to meet - or see their insurance rates go up.

The Obama administration, to its credit, has focused on resilience as a major goal of its homeland security policy. And some officials have been blunt in warning that an attack is likely to succeed some day. "We must be honest with ourselves," Obama's top adviser on terrorism, John O. Brennan, said this year.

Still, in practice, the administration hasn't talked about much about preparedness. "There's a concern about sounding as if you're no longer focused on preventing attacks from happening," one official acknowledged.

But Californians know what to do in an earthquake. Kansans know what to do in a tornado. Floridians know what to do in a hurricane.

Everybody ought to know what to do in the event of an attack - of any kind.

We're tougher than we look. We can take it.

• Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him e-mail at

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