Among the most hellish scenarios for terrorist catastrophes in New York would involve saboteurs blowing up one of the nearby chemical plants across the river in New Jersey. Prevailing westerly winds would waft the toxins across the Hudson over a helpless Manhattan. Next to bioterrorism, reported the U.S. Surgeon General, chemical emissions would be the worst possible eventuality in a terrorist attack. There are 120 major chemical plants in the U.S., each one potentially threatening the lives of a million people. A government investigation reports that their safety precautions run from "fair to poor." "Worst-case scenarios" filed with the Environmental Protection Agency reveal just how devastating this could be—one plant in New Jersey could emit enough toxic chemicals to poison 12 million people.
Even without a terrorist strike, toxic releases pose a horrendous problem in the U.S., with 600,000 accidents reported over the past decade.
The passage of the Homeland Security Act actually has made it harder to protect ourselves against such potentially deadly accidents. That's because the new laws prevent citizens from investigating the chemical industry's operations under the Freedom of Information Act or through government whistle-blowers who discover and report a danger. Under the new set of laws, they will lose their jobs if they blow the whistle.
Terrorists are well aware of the possibilities. Just 10 days after the planes hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, a huge explosion rocked the area near Toulouse in southern France, killing 30 people and injuring many others. At first, authorities laid the blame on faulty equipment in the plant. More recently, French publications have unearthed a classified memo from France's supersecret spook bureau, the Renseignements Gnraux, an equivalent to our National Security Agency, that instead points to a network of Islamic terrorists. The plot supposedly stretches its tentacles to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the east, a hidden base in London, and a pot of money in New York, according to investigations by Le Figaro and L'Express. Whether any of this goes anywhere is hard to know, but it has created something of a sensation in Paris. So far, neither hypothesis—of an accident or of a terror attack—has been completely discounted.
Question: President [George W.] Bush has said that Jesus Christ is his favorite political philosopher. He said that during the campaign. Jesus Christ said turn the other cheek. He said the meek will inherit the earth. And he said do violence to no man. How does the president square his militarism with Jesus Christ's pacifism? Ari Fleischer: One, I think your choice of words is inappropriate when you refer to President Bush's militarism. The president is seeking a way to provide peace and to protect the American people from a growing, gathering threat in the hands of Saddam Hussein and the weapons that he has collected. And the president approaches this matter per his constitutional duties. And his constitutional duties are to be the commander in chief—who is sworn to uphold the Constitution and protect the American people from threats to our lives. And that's the manner in which he approaches it. He does view this also as a matter of great morality in terms of the serious judgment that any president has to make about risking lives to save life. And that's the focus that the president brings. —White House briefing with Ari Fleischer, Feb. 11, 2003, 12:30 p.m. TAKEN FOR A RIDE
While Congress voted last week to curb the Pentagon's efforts to set up a broad electronic spy program, there is an equally bad project within the Department of Transportation (DOT) that would officially label every person who rides a commercial airliner as a potential terrorist and a threat to national security. By doing this, the department can gather all sorts of information and conduct background investigations of airline passengers that otherwise would require court orders. This program is tucked away in what the DOT euphemistically calls the Privacy Act System of Records, Christopher Effgen reports on his Disaster Center website. "DOT," Effgen writes, "is proposing that passengers' names be entered into a computer program that will then match their name against names in law-enforcement systems of records, financial and transactional databases, public source information, proprietary data, and be used to create risk-assessment reports. When a person is identified as being a possible suspect—in violation of any federal, state, territorial, tribal, local, international or foreign law—the information will be forwarded to the appropriate law-enforcement agency. These agencies may also access the database." All of this is being done as part of the department's "risk assessment" for spotting would-be terrorists getting on planes.
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The database has other uses, of course, as a tool in deciding whether to hire or fire someone, issue a security clearance, make a grant, give a license. The applicants will never know they are being scrutinized through this secret system.
GIS GET JIGGY IN BISHKEK
The American military's arrival in Kyrgyzstan is turning out to be a big lift for the Central Asian country's local economy by turning prostitution into a booming business. While the U.S. military officially frowns on whores, the sex workers in the country report their services are in great demand, enabling them to raise prices from $12 per visit to nearly $50. Some women say they make as much as $100 per night. A quarter of all the prostitution is devoted to servicing American soldiers who the women find need a bit of friendship as well. That leads the busy women to beat a trail to the local sex-health organization to pick up condoms and practice speaking English from phrasebooks. They like the GIs because the soldiers are kind to them: "On New Year's Eve, the servicemen gave us a nice tip on top of our earnings by leaving $50 and $100 bills under the Christmas tree for us," one woman told journalist Elena Buldakova of the Institute of War & Peace Reporting, a news service at Iwpr.net.
Military authorities say coalition troops are forbidden from frequenting prostitutes. "It is completely out of the question," said Elizabeth Orkiz, a public-relations spokesperson at the air base in Bishkek. "American military men know that they cannot do this, and they will be held responsible for any infringement of army regulations. They are authorized to visit the city only for cultural events such as theater, shopping and cinema—or for official visits."
Additional reporting by Sandra Bisin, Rebecca Winsor, Josh Saltzman and Phoebe St. John.