The Next Attack

THE NEXT ATTACK….The insurgency seems to have found a new way of killing people in Iraq: a bomb on board a tanker carrying chlorine exploded outside a restaurant today, killing six people and injuring dozens of others. As Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank suggested earlier (see post below), Iraq is proving to be an excellent training ground for jihadists eager to hone their skills.

But it could have been worse. It could have been an attack on a chemical plant, with the potential to cause casualties on the level of Bhopal or worse. Or, as Stephen Flynn reports in our current issue, an attack on an oil refinery, like Sunoco’s facility in densely populated Philadelphia, which might kill tens of thousands even in a crude attack by suicide bombers:

Readers may be surprised to learn that an oil refinery can pose such a huge threat; terrorists, rest assured, are not. Al-Qaeda has been acquiring experience in these kinds of attacks in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and sharing the details of constructing improvised explosive devices in Internet chat rooms. All the information on the dangers of hydrofluoric acid and the vulnerability of the Sunoco facility can be found in publicly available reports that are accessible with the click of a mouse. And there are dozens of other similar plants near urban areas — from refineries to chemical factories to water-treatment facilities — where, to this day, in a worst-case scenario, hundreds of thousands of Americans could be killed or injured.

I suspect this is a story that no longer gets much attention because everyone is just tired of it. Too wonky. But either the threat of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is serious or it’s not. If it’s not, let’s say so and cut out the color coded nonsense. But if it is, how is it that the Republican Party has gotten away with ignoring the whole thing merely because they have an ideological aversion to regulating industry?

Because it really doesn’t boil down to much more than that. Dick Cheney’s son-in-law may have been the point man for this stuff, but it’s not as if he had a tough fight on his hands. The entire adminstration and the entire Republican Party was on his side:

Because 85 percent of the critical infrastructure within the United States is privately owned, federal efforts to advance homeland security would have clashed with the conservative belief that Washington should avoid regulating industry. In July 2002, the White House made this thinking official doctrine when it quietly released The National Strategy for Homeland Security. The policy paper establishes that “the government should only address those activities that the market does not adequately provide — for example, national defense and border security.” However, as a rule, the government found, “sufficient incentives exist in the private market to supply protection. In these cases we should rely on the private sector.”

The whole thing is really beyond belief. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t get a lot of attention any more. But as Flynn points out, it’s hardly an insurmountable problem: there are a finite number of truly likely targets; the technology exists to make them substantially safer in case of a successful terrorist attack; and the cost would probably be in the range of a few billion dollars. Not chickenfeed, but a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of the Iraq war.

But we’re not doing anything about it. In fact, the latest proposal from the White House even goes so far as to prevent states from enacting their own laws. Apparently we’re willing to bear any burden and pay any price….as long as that doesn’t include writing a few regulations for the chemical industry. That’s beyond the pale. It’s the true-believer monomania of movement conservatism at its finest.