07 January 2004

'Dirty Bomb' Was Major New Year's Worry

'Dirty Bomb' Was Major New Year's Worry

By John Mintz and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 7, 2004; Page A01

With huge New Year's Eve celebrations and college football bowl games only days away, the U.S. government last month dispatched scores of casually dressed nuclear scientists with sophisticated radiation detection equipment hidden in briefcases and golf bags to scour five major U.S. cities for radiological, or 'dirty,' bombs, according to officials involved in the emergency effort.

The call-up of Department of Energy radiation experts to Washington, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Baltimore was the first since the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It was conducted in secrecy, in contrast with the very public cancellation of 15 commercial flights into this country from France, Britain and Mexico -- the other major counterterrorism response of the holiday season.

The new details of the government's search for a dirty bomb help explain why officials have used dire terms to describe the reasons for the nation's fifth 'code orange' alert, issued on Dec. 21 by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. U.S. officials said they remain worried today -- in many cases, more concerned than much of the American public realizes -- that their countermeasures would fall short.

'Government officials are surprised that people [in the United States] aren't more hyped about all this,' said one source familiar with counterterrorism preparations.

Even now, hundreds of nuclear and bioweapons scientists remain on high alert at several military bases around the country, ready to fly to any trouble spot. Pharmaceutical stockpiles for responding to biological attacks are on transportable trucks at key U.S. military bases."

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