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U.S.: Experts Cite Agriculture As Possible Terror Target

America's food supplies are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. That's the assessment of a U.S. congressional panel and experts who testified before it.

Washington, 20 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. congressional committee says the American government may be ignoring the real threat of a terrorist attack against the country's vast agricultural infrastructure.

At a hearing yesterday of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, the panel's chairman, Senator Susan Collins, said the U.S. government should focus not only on protecting itself from bombings and similar violent terrorist acts.

Collins -- a Republican from the eastern state of Maine -- cited a videotape of Osama bin Laden, the leader of the Al-Qaeda terror network, in which he praises the attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. She says that on the same tape he also makes clear he recognizes that America's farm fields and its food-processing companies are just as emblematic of the U.S. economy as the twin towers.

"Osama bin Laden urged his followers to 'hit hard the American economy at its heart and core.' Nothing is more at the heart and core of our economy than our agriculture and food industry. It is a $1 trillion economic sector that creates one-sixth of our gross national product," Collins said.

Collins also cited a recent report by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that found the 11 September hijackers had been researching the use of "crop dusters" -- small airplanes used to spray fertilizers and insecticides on farming fields. She said these aircraft have been shown to be inefficient in spreading disease to humans, but that they would be ideal for spreading disease to plants and animals.

The senator said the economic impact of such an attack could be devastating. She cited previous cases of livestock disease, which were not caused deliberately. For example, she said the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Great Britain in 2001 cost the British government $1.6 billion in compensation to farmers alone, and that estimated losses due to tourism totaled around $4 billion.

Collins said this and similar recent outbreaks of disease were caused by simple human error, carelessness, and lapses in security. She said it is "alarming" how easily terrorists could cause similar infections, but on a wider scale.

One of several witnesses at yesterday's hearing, Peter Chalk, agreed about the economic impact of a terrorist attack on U.S agriculture. Chalk studies terrorism issues at the RAND Corporation, a private policy research center based in California with offices in Washington.

Chalk testified that America's overall food industry, including agriculture and food processing, is crucial to the nation's economy. He says fewer than 3 percent of U.S. workers are employed on farms, but that one in every eight Americans works at a job that is directly supported by food production.

According to Chalk, the cattle and dairy industries earn up to $54 billion each year, and U.S. farm exports earn about $50 billion annually.

Chalk said these industries are particularly vulnerable to terrorists because infecting livestock is more feasible than infecting people directly. In most cases, he explained, the terrorist faces little or no risk of being infected himself, the animals themselves become the weapons, and many people may panic, not realizing that they cannot themselves contract these diseases from animals.

"All of these factors bear into the fact that it's easy to do, it will spread quickly, it will definitely have an economic impact, and quite possibly have a very significant psychological impact," Chalk said.

One of the committee members, Senator Richard Durbin -- a Democrat from the Midwestern state of Illinois -- asked another witness about the ease of infecting cattle and other livestock. That witness was Doctor Tom McGinn, a specialist with the Department of Agriculture in the southeastern U.S. state of North Carolina.

McGinn said it would be easy to import anthrax into the country on a handkerchief. He said a terrorist could simply attend an agricultural fair, such as those sponsored by U.S. states every year, and use that handkerchief to infect livestock:

"If you had exposed livestock before they're being shipped back to the farm, at a state fair, you would have dispersed the disease across the state -- frankly in a sadly, an efficient way, it would move across the state. That is a reality and would have a terrible, damaging economic impact," McGinn said.

According to McGinn, attacking crops would not be much more difficult. He said infecting food at agricultural processing plants not only would sicken and kill many people but also would spread fear throughout the nation and weaken confidence in the ability of the government to protect its citizens.

Further, McGinn said, people with unrelated ailments may believe that they, too, have been poisoned, putting further stress on a health-care system already struggling to treat actual victims of bioterrorism.

McGinn recalled the anthrax attacks in the United States of two years ago that killed five people, sickened 17 others, and further frightened a nation coping with the recent terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

"We have become a nation concerned about receiving anthrax in our mailboxes. Imagine what it would be like to be a nation concerned about opening our refrigerators and anthrax being in our refrigerators, as well," McGinn said.

Several of the witnesses, including Chalk and McGinn, urged improved federal coordination of state and local efforts to counter terrorist attacks on the nation's agricultural infrastructure. Addressing those recommendations, Durbin complained that the responsibility lies not with state and local governments, but with the federal government itself. He noted that there are many federal agencies, regulations and laws --- some of them conflicting -- that deal with agricultural safety. He recommended they be streamlined before any such attack could occur.

Chalk -- of the RAND Corporation -- said the threat of such an attack is compounded because several governments have developed weapons that target agriculture, and that the scientists with that knowledge may be willing to share it -- for a price.

"The former Soviet Union, Iraq, South Africa are all countries -- and the United States, for that matter -- are all countries that have included agricultural components in their biological programs. There is certainly a potential for that research to be disseminated by rogue scientists, by individuals seeking to make a quick buck, particularly from the [former] Soviet Union," Chalk said.

Chalk said the best way to prevent the dissemination of information on creating agricultural weapons is to provide incentives -- particularly financial and employment incentives -- to underemployed scientists not to do so. In particular, these scientists should be paid to develop vaccines against the very weapons they developed.

But that alone may not be enough, Chalk said. He said the knowledge exists, and it is more available to terrorists than many might wish to believe.

Ultimately, however, Chalk says he does not expect Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups to shift their modus operandi from bombings or other sudden attacks to agricultural terrorism. The reason, he says, is that such attacks lack the immediacy and drama that draw the kind of media attention essential to achieving a terrorist's goal of undermining a nation's morale and its sense of security:

"I don't think that [agricultural terrorism] is likely to constitute a primary form of terrorist aggression. This is because acts, while significant, are delayed. They lack a single point of reference for the media to latch on to and to emphasize. They are probably going to be viewed as too dry in comparison to more conventional attacks, such as a bombing campaign," Chalk said.

Instead, Chalk said, agricultural terrorism might become a secondary form of terrorism meant to intensify the social disruption growing out of more conventional attacks.