The Talking Dog

September 21, 2007, TD Blog Interview with Randall Larsen

Colonel Randall Larsen, USAF (Ret) is the Founding Director of The Institute for Homeland Security, the National Security Advisor to the Center for Biosecurity, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and the co-host of Public Radio's Homeland Security: Inside and Out. He previously served as the Chairman of the Department of Military Strategy and Operations at the National War College. Colonel Larsen served for 32 years in both the Army and Air Force. He served as a 19-year old Cobra pilot in the 101st Airborne Division in 1968-69 and flew 400 combat missions in Vietnam. He also served as military attaché at the US Embassy in Bangkok, the chief of legislative liaison at the US Transportation Command, and the commander of America's fleet of VIP aircraft at Andrews AFB MD. He is the author of Our Own Worst Enemy: Asking the Right Questions About Security to Protect You, Your Family, and America. On September 11, 2007, I had the privilege of interviewing Col. Larsen. What follows are my interview notes, corrected as appropriate by Col. Larsen.

The Talking Dog: As I find you in New York on September 11, 2007, where were you on September 11, 2001?

Randall Larsen: I was the director of the Institute for Homeland Security in Arlington, Virginia, and was in the office, about 3 miles South West of the Pentagon. Colleagues in the office told me an airplane had struck the World Trade Center. I assumed it was a small plane. When I walked into the conference room to look at the large plasma screen television I saw a large plane hit one of the twin towers. I asked, “Is that a replay?” They said, "No." Look, the other tower is burning.” I had begun studying homeland security issues in 1994; at that moment I saw United 175 hit the tower, I knew that the time had finally come.

However, my most frightening moment was actually not 9-11 itself. I was doing a "pre-interview" with the ABC program "20-20", when Howard Rosenberg, one of the producers, said "Tommy Thompson, then the Secretary of Health and Human Services, has just announced a confirmed case of inhalation anthrax in Florida. At that moment, I was more frightened than I was during any of my 400 missions flown in Viet Nam... I didn't know whether the casualties were going to be in the thousands, tens or hundreds of thousands, or worse... For me, anthrax was the more emotional and disturbing event, for me, than 9-11 itself.

The Talking Dog: You devote a section of your book to discussing the post 9-11 anthrax attacks, or "Amerithrax" as you termed it, which our law enforcement officials have never solved. While the government focused its efforts on an apparent scapegoat (your book doesn't identify him; I'll just call him "Dr. H.") reminiscent of the late Richard Jewell, it seems you have presented a wealth of compelling evidence linking these attacks to a far more likely and not unexpected source... the 9-11 plotters themselves. As far as you can tell, why isn't this more widely known? Also, if you would, talk about how you smuggled a vial of a bacillus into a White House meeting with the Vice-President, and after that, to the extent not classified, what if anything was done vis a vis security measures.

Randall Larsen: The FBI got far off course. The press actually missed the real story, as I saw it, with "the person of interest", insofar as that "Dr. H" had spent two years working in a bio-safe level 4 facility-- working with some of the most dangerous pathogens in the world-- with a bogus resume!

I travel all over the country giving speeches on homeland security. I just talked to the top 340 Senior Executive Service employees of the EPA, and asked them, using state of the art instant voting equipment, how many of them were aware that Mohammad Atta's roommate had cutaneous anthrax... not one of the 340 knew.

Five times a year, I brief top officers of the government and military, and only 1 or 2, if that, ever know! When you take all of the facts I have presented, I'm not suggesting that there would be no reasonable doubt possible, but the anthrax case and 9-11 case were the largest investigation in history! And yet, the FBI has turned up nothing on the anthrax case-- because they went in the wrong direction.

And had one young field agent not faxed that memo about Atta's roomate to my colleague Tom Inglesby, we wouldn't have known either! But you add this to the Robb-Silverman Commission's findings, that Al Qaeda was in the early stages of experimentation with these kind of bio-agents-- and you can see how they could have made at least a small quantity.

This, by the way, is the test tube I showed to the Vice President. It contains a harmless bacillis globigii, though this would be far more anthrax than was contained in the envelope sent to Daschle. I did, indeed, bring this vial into the White House, and showed it to the Vice President in answer to his question "what does bio-weapon look like"? The whole point is that you cannot alter the security procedure to catch this.

Later on, I brought this to the CIA... and while waiting to enter, I made sure the guard (holding the machine gun) saw it as I moved it from one pocket into another. I made sure that it was seen... and the fact is, it doesn't look like a weapon.

On September 20th, when the Secret Service searched my brief case prior to meeting with the VP, one compartment had an N-95 mask (similar to a surgical mask) and the test tube. The agent asked why I was carrying a mask. He asked the wrong question. He should have asked about the test tube. That story has become the metaphor for the entire book. Too many people are asking the wrong questions.

My friend Bill Patrick, who used to work in the offensive germ warfare programs during the Cold War... likes to go into Congressional hearings with a rose sprayer! He has even sprayed the bacillus (it is non-toxic, though frankly, not a good idea, as the particles can nonetheless be inhaled).

The Talking Dog: Also on the subject of the anthrax attacks, I recall how, in October 2001, the office manager of a law firm I was then working in (in strategically meaningless White Plains, NY-- the job I took after my previous office across the street from the WTC was displaced) donned rubber gloves and a surgical mask, to open mail... as you point out, the threat of a bio-attack could occur anywhere, and in 2001, the delivery vehicles were U.S. Postal Service trucks... unlike a spectacular 9-11 attack, or even a nuclear attack, which would likely be targeted at visible media, political or business centers. Why has so remarkably little been done, or even publicly discussed, in the area of preventing (or more importantly, preparing for and mitigating the damage from) bio-attacks, given just how much fear (if not outright paranoia) the anthrax attacks caused in the wake of 9-11 (and that, an attack that caused deaths in the single-digits, when you point out that an effective bio-attack that we are poorly prepared for might kill thousands, or worse)? Does this come down to the one dirty word "politics", or perhaps worse, that there is just less money to be made for what you have termed "the homeland security industrial complex", or is something else going on?

Randall Larsen: One of the points I made about Cantor Fitzgerald is that the only thing that would have been worse than having lost so many of their colleagues that day would have been for them to have lost so many colleagues and then to have had to stand in the unemployment line!

As to the anthrax issue, by late November 2001, audiences I was encountering around the country outside of New York or Washington reacted to 9-11 as if it were a movie. The whole thing was surreal to them. Now, one of the points I try to make is that in the great scheme of things, compared to the vast population of the United States, the ultimate human cost-- as horrible as nearly 3,000 lives lost is-- is relatively small. But the economic impact was huge and devastating. And the same is especially the case with bio-weapons.

At the moment, we have no plan for anthrax, let alone other pathogens. That we are not ready is not just Randy Larsen's opinion... Dr. D.A. Henderson, former Dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health says that we are not prepared. And anthrax is the easiest and most likely pathogen we'd have to deal with!

We have serious problems with a pandemic flu "plan". I was at a conference where we were talking to business executives and the chief of a public health service in a major city-- I won't name the city-- said he would order 90% of the people to stay at home. That would be turning a crisis into a catastrophe! I noted that there were 400 people in the room... while we don't like to think about it, if we had a similar pattern to the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic-- the worst ever recorded-- around a quarter of the 400 in the room would get the flu, and it would take around a month to recover 2 or 3 would, unfortunately, die of it. The pandemic would be disruptive, but not near as much as the gross overreaction of directing 90 percent of the people to stray at home... this is what I mean by "our own worst enemy.” We could do far more damage to our economy than either Mother Nature or the terrorists.

The most likely bio- event is some kind of a flu pandemic, but the threat of a bio-terrorism attack becomes more likely every year. But, if we take measures such as telling everyone to stay home, think of a flu pandemic with the economic impact of the example I give in the book: a blizzard that lasts for 3 or 4 months!

The Talking Dog: Let's follow that theme in the area of preventing terrorists from threatening us with nuclear weapons. I take it I have phrased the issue correctly-- the issue is not so much a terrorist actually detonating such a weapon in an American city, but a terrorist group with such a weapon in its possession could detonate it anywhere in the world, and pretty much achieve its ends by blackmail without delivering it. And yet, everytime I see Chuck Schumer open his mouth (I pick on him because he's my own senator!), it's invariably harping about inadequacies of port security, which as you point out, is "the last one minute and ten meters", i.e., trying to detect a nuclear weapon that had already reached New York harbor would probably be a little late-- the priority has to be preventing terrorist groups from acquiring fissionable material in the first place. Part of this is sound-bite politics-- one can always say "more should be done" to inspect container cargo... but some very sensible programs,-- such as the Nunn-Lugar program to acquire and dismantle former Soviet nuclear weapons, which has not only been cost-effective security-wise, but has even helped provide material to power our own nuclear power plants-- languish underfunded or worse. As with bio-weapons, let me again ask if this comes down to the one dirty word "politics", or that there is just less money to be made for what you have termed "the homeland security industrial complex" (say, manufacturers of radiological detectors have pull on the Hill)... or is something else going on?

Randall Larsen: Well, as with bio-terrorism, the answer to who is in charge of preventing terrorists from getting fissionable material to make nuclear weapons is... no one. By the way-- the budget for the Nunn-Lugar program is being cut again! The entire program's annual cost is what we spend every 4 days in Iraq!

The Robb-Silbermann Commission's report has put it succinctly: in the nuclear and bio-terror areas, we are simply not prepared. The solutions and approaches we need are bipartisan... I take great pride in the fact that many tell me "Randy, we can't figure out if you're a Republican or a Democrat!"

Case in point: most people have no idea how easy it is these days to manufacture one Hiroshima size and type bomb. And it doesn't have to go off in New York City either-- a detonation of such a weapon by a terrorist group anywhere in the world would change the world forever.

Bio-terrorism, by contrast, is harder to understand. Nuclear weapons are hard enough. But as to bio-weapons, think about the fact that the United Nations inspectors actually found bio-weapons and faciilities in Iraq in 1995! If the UN team in 2003 had said, as if it were even possible, that they could find absolutely no evidence of bio-weapons in Iraq... the fact is, just two weeks later, Iraq would have been able to produce them again, if the facililties were maintained. Of course politically this was very hard to sell to the public as a reason to go to war-- so nuclear weapons, of which there was much less eivdnece-- were a much easier sell to the public! But in fact, privately, many in the Bush Administration were much more worried about bio-weapons, though they knew it would be harder politically to justify the war.

At this point, our approaches to nuclear-terror and bio-terror seem to have both backwards.

One example cited is that it is feared that one way to bring such weapons in here from abroad is via private airplanes, or general aviation, as there is somewhat relaxed security in this area; so a priority becomes stepping up general aviation security. This will work fine as long as terrorists are willing to follow the new rules!

In the end, you can be very intelligent, but without sufficient effective knowledge, you will go in circles. One of the big failings of our nation and its homeland security approach currently is in the area of education... in 1900, there was no discipline called international relations, but our great universities created it. In 1950, there was no such thing as security studies... but again, our top universities took it on. Indeed, the great strategies of the Cold War, came from our top universities. And so we need a similar approach to homeland security, and yet at the moment the field has been left to community colleges... But they are not training strategic policy thinkers, they are training first responders. Some universities, of course, insist that they are doing it-- but they prove my point! They are studying new gadgets-- technology is driving the policy, which is the exact opposite of what has to happen. At the moment, no major university is doing this (besides Texas A&M and its Bush School). Dr. Dave McIntyre of Texas A&M understands strategy... he has a new Masters and Ph.D. program up and running training strategic thinkers, and not just first responders.

Because the big picture perspective is lacking, many otherwise competent officials just don't get it. I recall taking 28 Members of the House Homeland Security Committee on a retreat to the Wye River resort for two days. We spent one day on nuclear issues and one day on bio-terror issues; and it seemed to me we were getting somewhere. The primary focus of the bio day was to convince them that the biotechnical revolution has made it impossible to prevent a bio attack. The focus of our defensive efforts must be on rapid detection, response and recovery. However, when they returned to Capitol Hill, they went back to their pre-conceived approaches, and wrote up a summary called "preventing nuclear and bio-terror attacks!"

In my view, this lack of education, at the graduate school level, is a huge contributor to the "ready fire aim" approach to homeland security we see in Congress. Another contributing factor, of course, is our culture of sound-bite politics. Another factor is our "homeland security industrial complex" with an incentive to sell the most expensive gadgets available. Of course, such factors militate against something as simple or effective as the Nunn-Lugar program! Just something more to tell us how smart Ike was in telling us to beware of such a military industrial complex.

The Talking Dog: You indicate that you are non-partisan, and most of your positions are certainly that; indeed, I am not sure whether, or to what extent, I agree with you or not, for example, on your view that publishing-- not merely leaking, but publicly disseminating-- classified data should be a crime for the publisher (calling Robert Novak!), particularly given how abusive the current Administration has been of classifying information that will embarrass it, rather than necessarily as a "security" matter, or that we need "new rules" beyond law enforcement or military engagement to combat terrorism. That said, my question is that you have nonetheless singled out two officials for rather harsh treatment in your book (and on this, I wholly agree with you), Karl Rove draws your ire for blocking appointment of a highly qualified and critically important security official solely on political grounds, and more significantly perhaps, former Attorney General John Ashcroft for apparently misleading the 9-11 Commission on the extent that former Deputy A.G. Jamie Gorelick was responsible for erecting "the wall" between law enforcement and intelligence gathering that he found so convenient to blame for the pre-9-11 intelligence failures (conveniently omitting his own role in upholding "the wall"). I take it that you noted them because these particular officials happen to be in office at the relevant time... or do you have a further comment on why their actions are particularly egregious, and what lessons can we draw vis a vis future public officials and their conduct?

Randall Larsen: I certainly do take on Democrats-- I took on the current Speaker of the House first! But yes, Ashcroft has a laser pointer aimed at his head! His testimony, and distortion of the facts, has fueled endless right-wing diatribes against an honorable public servant, Jamie Gorelick. 9-11 Commission chairs Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean summed it up best regarding Ashcroft: his testimony was misleading.

In the same day, I often listen to both NPR and Rush Limbaugh. I like to stay up-to-date on both sides of debates. I recall one instance where a 14 year old girl called in to Rush and asked about how Democrats could protect us from anything given how clueless they are, and the usual you'd expect...

Rush responded with "the wall" that Jamie Gorelick built:. Well, I have liberal friends and Republican friends... but it makes me mad when radical Republicans harp on "the wall" that they contend was constructed by Ms. Gorelick, when, if anything, she helped lower it! And yet, I hear this continually as a right wing talking point, besmirching an outstanding public servant.

The Talking Dog: With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the government accomplished one of the biggest bureaucratic reapportionments in decades, incorporating a number of services, like the Coast Guard, the Immigration Service, and FEMA that were in a variety of different agencies and structures (INS in Justice, USCG in Transportation, FEMA... somewhere) in one place, that at least seemed to make sense. On the whole, has this exercise, in your view, by and large been a success, or has it mostly played out as political musical chairs, and key functions (such as public health, disaster coordination, preventing nuclear proliferation/bioterror etc.) are still largely not that well organized? Do you have any suggestions for improvement in this area of organizing the bureaucracy... or is this "asking the wrong question"?

Randall Larsen: No, it's certainly the right question... best phrased as "Has the Department of Homeland Security made our nation and its people more secure?" and the answer to that is a resounding "No".
The method of secrecy about how this government has operated and how it created things like the Department of Homeland Security is troubling. I talked to both Senator Hart and Senator Rudman, who studied homeland security for three years, and they made a number of recommendations, the first 50 of which were unanimous-- regardless of party. Their first recommednation was not to make the department too large! One priority iwas to try to take back security of our borders, such as with the border patrol, customs and immigration services... but don't do what they did- bring in 26 different agencies each with its own system for everything! What happened? The people in the White House who created this didn't talk to the Hart-Rudman people... or seemingly anyone!

I happen to like our current Secretary of DHS, Michael Chertoff, a great deal. I meet him every 6 weeks or so... he has a very good big picture sense. Indeed, he wrote much of the recent immigration bill... a bill that ideological opponents like John Kyl and Ted Kennedy could both support (although a vocal minority eventually killed that bill). I wrote a recent op ed, where I pointed out that we have two very good officials-- Secretary Chertoff and Kip Holly, head of the Transportation Security Agency...

But the problem is, their agency is unmanageable... and it's not them, no one can run it. It is a disaster. There are 5 times as many political appointees than the Defense Department, in an agency only 1/5 the size! There are an incredible number of contractors-- my book points to an example of one unit with 122 people and only 3 government employees! A contractor's main job is to keep the contract!

So,... DHS is a disaster. I gave the agency a D+ in terms of value provided to us as taxpayers... in my own career, I never graded on a curve but Chertoff gets a C on a curve, because there are so many things that are beyond his control—and I am not talking about al Qaeda.

And Congress itself presents a huge problem-- with 88 separate committees and subcommittees of oversight over this area. The 9-11 Commission recommended that Congress itself needed to be reorganized... but it isn't happening.

The Talking Dog: You suggest that someone in the government be in charge of, on a full-time basis, respectively, preventing and mitigating bio-terror attacks, and preventing nuclear terror attacks. Given the troubled history our government has had with "czars" in the past, be they "energy czar", "war on drugs czar" or more recently "intelligence czar", could you explain why you think this would be more successful approach than, say, placing these specific portfolios in existing officials (such as, for example, making these the only two duties of the Homeland Security Secretary, and devolving the rest of his or her portfolio to other agencies, just to throw one out there)?

Randall Larsen: That's a very good question. Certainly, our "czar system" is all wrong. I recall our former Drug Czar William Bennett saying that he couldn't get an assisstant secretary of defense to get him on his calendar... if the czar has no money to appropriate or control, the assistant secretary has no time! A bureaucrat's concerns are who can promote me, fire me, or give me money... it's not a czar!

A more likely model for this is our new National Intelligence Director: he can, at least in theory and by design, hire and fire people and he controls an intelligence budget-- supposedly ahead of OMB controlling it.

Richard Falkenrath, now New York City's man in charge of counter-terror, has said that as to bio-defense, the issue is far too complex to have one person in charge. This is like telling Ike that Operation Overlord at D-Day was too complicated to have one man in charge! This is just not the case.

It is absolutely critical that someone of real authority is in charge of the bio-security issue and bio-terror threat... especially given the revolution in bio-technology. My editor suggested I remove this story-- and I'm sorry I did. When I was a small boy growing up on a farm in Indiana, I was having difficulty understanding he concept of God. My father picked up a kernel of corn and said, “Those folks up at Purdue could make something that looks just like this. They could probably even make something that tastes like this, but if they put it in the ground, it wouldn’t grow. Only God can do that.”
That story worked in the mid 1950s, but not today. A team of scientists at the State University of New York at Stony Brook created a virus in a test tube from non-living material that can grow and multiply-- the polio virus. It took three years to make the first virus, but after they figured out the process, it only took two weeks to make the next one. Most people outside the field of biology have no clue about the amazing revolution that is taking place. It will have great benefits to the human race, but it also has a very dark side.

Bio security is now so frightening that the hacker problem could kill us all-- a malevolent grad student or two could develop a virus that could literally threaten the human race. There are so many issues out there on this...

We have two people in charge of our national missile defense... but bio-security has no one.

As to your examples (such as reducing the Secretary of Homeland Security to just this portfolio)... there are any number of ways to get there. But the people in charge need the authority, the responsibility and the accountability... money is part of the authority, and as an effective military commander, I always had the authority I needed to get my job done.

As to possible models, the White House isn't so good... it's not set up for operations. The current Director of National Intelligence model may well be the best way to go.

The Talking Dog: Before I forget to ask, your book highlights the simple fact that whether because the federal government is just not logistically going to be able to help that much in a real emergency, when push comes to shove, "if it's going to be it's up to me", and that much or most of our preparedness for worst-case terrorist attacks (or for that matter, hurricanes, blackouts and other periodic occurrences that require some kind of emergency response), can and should be done locally, or more likely still, on our own, such as keeping comfortable shoes and a ready supply of water in your office (having hiked home from the events of 9-11 and the 2003 blackout, I fully concur), or keeping a couple of days supply of water and non-perishable food and some medical supplies at home... and a plan to either evacuate, or "shelter in place". What would you give as the three or four most critical suggestions you would make to people to prepare themselves and their families, now, before a crisis, for the likeliest disaster (terrorist or otherwise) scenarios? Same question, for say, a small business looking to protect itself and its employees from the likeliest emergencies?

Randall Larsen: For you and your family, issue number 1-- number 1-- is prescription medication. A plastic baggy with 4 or 5 or however many pill bottles, including bottles with the prescriptions visible. Also, e-mail copies of the prescriptions to relatives, or xerox them and store them with relatives or somewhere besides yourself. My mother in Pueblo, CO has my banking data, will medical power of attorney and investment account data. The chance of a simultaneous disaster in both Virginia and Colorado is extraordinarily remote.

I don't believe in stockpiling food; my rule of 2 applies-- you can go 2 minutes of breathing without oxygen, 2 hours without shelter in harsh climates, 2 days without water, 2 weeks without food... keeping a supply of water is important-- the N-95 mask is very, very important (you can get a box of 20 for around $19.95 in Home Depot). A Rand Corporation study noted that if we have a SARS outbreak here, the mask will be widely used-- mostly to prevent contagion from people coughing, by the way. Dr. Eric Toner, chief of the bio-team of the Center for Bio Security has said that his family will be wearing N-95 masks in the event of any outbreaks.

Number 2, is to understand a few rules... in a hurricane, run from water, but hide from wind; get out of a storm surge, but shelter in place for high winds... this will reduce clogged roadways in the event of such a storm, during which people are trapped outside. Also- keep comfort items in your emergency stores... cookies for the kids, and I keep a bottle of scotch!

As to small businessess (the big guys already have their plans in place), go to a free website that I and collegues have developed for small businesses, that cuts through a lot of excess; Homeland Security has a lot of web pages, but some are good, some bad... we give the Readers Digest version of what's out there, and what you need to know.

The Talking Dog: You point out that one of the most asked "wrong questions" (or, as I prefer, "stupid questions") is "how can we win the war on terror", the answer of course, being that that's a stupid question-- terror is just a method of warfare that has always been around, always will, and can no more be "won" than a "war on hurricanes", and the real question is "how can we prevent and/or mitigate and/or prepare ourselves for potentially catastrophic attacks from state and/or non-state actors and possibly move the decimal point over to the left (rather than the right) in terms of potential casualties (on this, your book notes a hero of 9-11, the late Rick Rescorla, who with this staff, three of whom died as well, may well have singlehandedly prevented the 9-11 death toll from doubling by evacuating over 2700 employees of Morgan Stanley from the South WTC Tower even as announcements were made to stay put... because he prepared and drilled for just such an event, and Morgan Stanley, at least, was prepared to protect its people, and of course, the pasengers and crew of Flight 93, who probably saved hundreds if not thousands of lives by overpowering the highjackers.) The problem with this is "it doesn't sound good in 15 second sound-bites"... I could just picture John Kerry being excoriated had he answered such a question in the 2004 presidential debates or on the campaign trail, or indeed, if any of the current candidates tried to answer it in such a way. Do you envision a solution to this mess-- really the inability even to have a rational public debate about this, where we have a poisoned political climate and a lazy press corps, with everyone out to nail any candidate as "soft on terror" for not giving a stock "tough sounding" answer?

Randall Larsen: Certainly, political courage is always at a premium. But I have heard Joe Lieberman, for example, publicly say that "we cannot win the war on terror". I might have heard John McCain say it as well. It is an absurd phrase-- it is like a war on blitzkrieg, or as I heard it even better, a war on kamikazes-- simply a type of warfare.

As an aside about McCain and courage... I spent a year in a war-- I have great respect for courage-- what I did didn't take that much courage-- you're running, shooting, or being shot at and shooting back-- whereas McCain was seriously injured in the Hanoi Hilton, and refused to be sent home when they offered it to him ahead of others... that kind of courage is off the chart. Of course, supporting the Iraq war was not good for his campaign, but he believes in it (rightly or wrongly, but sincerely) as in the best interest of the country, and believes that it is more important to support what he believes in, even if it will ultimately cost him politically. I don't know if I agree or not on Iraq, but I will just say that we need more politicians who put courage before their own political advancement. Remember what happened to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence... the courage it took for them to do that?

At this point, an awful lot of people don't realize right now that we could lose this "war on terror"... there are things that coulod happen that could change the United States forever. People don't like to look at this... and its certainly especially hard if you're running for office.

The Talking Dog: Indeed, your book notes that the terrorist threat should be kept in perspective... while 3,000 have died from terrorist attacks, far more have died from auto accidents or medical mistakes, for example, and yet, the same degree of fear or concern isn't there... but given how politically powerful the "fear card" has been so far... how do you see putting this in perspective in a reasoned public debate?

Randall Larsen: Let me put this in personal perspective. I recall the first time the nation was placed on "orange alert". I was traveling out in Illinois-- staying at a Holiday Inn in Mt. Vernon, IL, really in the middle of nowhere. CBS called me to appear on its Early Show, and they sent out a satellite truck. Hanna Storm asked me how I was reacting to the orange alert ,given that my own 19 year old daughter was back I Washington, DC, which I acknowledged was the likeliest terrorist target. I asked her to repeat the question with about 40 seconds to go in the interview.

I said that I worry about drunk drivers, ordinary criminals and street thugs, 19 year old boys, and then terrorists, and in that order... perhaps we should add the threat of bio-terror specifically, but that list reflects the perspective we should have.

I'm optimistic that if we ask the right questions and demand the appropriate policies to respond to those questions, and place the right priorities in taking the right actions to prevent or limit the impact of nuclear and bio-terror, I am convinced that we can keep the threat below that of drunk drivers and others. If we do not have the right priorities, ask the right questions and take the right steps, the threat will grow ever greater and greater.

The ultimate goal, as the scholars of the Cold War phrased it, is containment. Keeping terrorism in its appropriate place on our list of worries.

The Talking Dog: Your book gives a number of examples of "posse-ing up", to wit, using existing resources, such as well-trained, organized volunteers, at minimal government cost, to expand governmental capabilities to respond to emergencies... can you give one or two of what you think are really good examples of this, and since "if it's going to be, it's up to me", what steps individuals can take to help make this sort of thing a reality in their own communities?

Randall Larsen: From the book, I rather liked the example of Lockheed Martin and its employee's participation in distributing the antibiotic "push-packs. It's win-win-- not only are they helping the community, but the volunteers get themselves vaccinated and treated first.

As Diane Lapson said in the book, she wishes she was better prepared for 9-11-- or any other emergency. .

What I suggest, first and foremost, for you and your family is to get CPR and First Aid training-- anyone over 12. Even things like the Heimlich Manuever and basic CPR methods are now different... you need the latest, most effective training. And remember "911" will always be a local call; first responders will invariably be from the local community.

The Talking Dog: Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn't, or anything else that you believe that the public needs to know on these critically important subjects?

Randall Larsen: I think the quote I gave you earlier sums it up-- if we ask the right questions and establish the right priorities, then we can keep the terrorist threat in its proper place in the list of worries-- behind drunk drivers, crime, and natural disasters... and then terrorists. If we follow that stragegy, then I think we can contain the threat. We cannot let it rise to number 1. Given the advances in 21st century technology, that would be, to put it mildly, bad. But I am optimistic that we will be able to keep terrorism in its proper place in our list of worries, and to be prepared for the coming challenges.

The Talking Dog: On behalf of all of my readers, I thank Col. Larsen for that thorough and enlightening interview, and commend interested readers to take a look at Our Own Worst Enemy: Asking the Right Questions About Security to Protect You, Your Family, and America.


I really thought this was an interesting interview... and it emphasized my belief that terrorism is not our biggest threat... on a day to day basis... that being said I have to point out that Larsen's statement that "I often listen to both NPR and Rush Limbaugh" as though they were opposite sides of the coin is naive. NPR after years of public financing from a republican congress and administration is no longer (if it ever was) on the opposite side of the rightwing like Limbaugh. NPR has centered itself right of center, Limbaugh is on the far right. If Larsen wants to view the left wing for a different perspective I would suggest "air america"... that being said I also want to point out that air america is intelligent radio... something the likes of Limbaugh can never achieve.

Posted by hcgorman at September 21, 2007 9:57 PM

Thank you, Dog.

Posted by The Heretik at September 22, 2007 11:58 PM

I've really enjoyed your other interviews, but I'm not sure what to make of this one - either Col. Larsen isn't well informed about the "Amerithrax" case, or he is deliberatey spreading misinformation about it.

First of all, according to the FBI, there is absolutely ZERO evidence that Mohamed Atta or any of his accomplices ever had any contact with anthrax.

As for the "sub-cutenious anthrax" Atta's roommate supposedly had, according to the CDC's expert on anthrax, whatever the man's problem might have been, it almost certainly was NOT anthrax. (Think about, unless that guy was walking through a room knee deep in anthrax spores, it's highly unlikely that his lower leg would've been infected with the disease, to the exclusion of the rest of his body.)

Of the 7 "anthrax letters" that were mailed, 5 were mailed on 9/18/01, so it doesn't seem likely that Atta dropped them in the mail on his way to the airport, now does it?

And I don't know what "evidence" Col. Larsen is refering to when he claims al qaida was experiminting with bio agents, but we now know that all the news reports claming "anyone with a year of high school biology could make weaponized anthrax in a basement lab", were exactly what they sounded like - pure crap!

In fact, it turns out that only a few labs could make stuff of Amerithrax quality. And to top it all off, that particular strain originally came from the US government! Did Col. Larsen explain how al qaida might've got their hands on it? (I bet he didn't.)

Another thing I don't understand, is why Col. Larsen finds anthrax to be more terrifying than the 400 combat missions he flew - it's not communicable and is very easy to treat, so it certainly isn't a "doomsday weapon". (Personally, if I wanted to use a bio agent to cause the maximum amount of fear and hysteria, with the minimum amount of casualties, I'd choose anthrax - kinda like if I wanted cause the maximum amount of "shock and awe", with the minimum amount of actual damage and casualties, I'd crash an airplane into an unoccupied wing of the Pentagon - but that's just me being the devious SOB that I am.)


Posted by rummy at September 23, 2007 2:04 AM

Rummy, Rummy, Rummy...

The September 18th date proves that it couldn't be the 9-11 highjacker plot, because they were all dead? Then wtf did we have a "war on terror" for the last 6 years for... it is inconceivable that the plotters could have had at least one more confederate around to mail some anthrax? Plllllease.

Mr. Larsen himself acknowledges that the issue is not whether this version is "proven"... it clearly isn't. The issue is that this entire strand seems not to have been followed up as a matter of the FBI's misdirected sleuthing... and it's not as if the FBI ever solved this one (I suppose O.J. can take some time from looking for his wife's killer to look for the anthrax perp[s]).

The FBI has about the same credibility on the anthrax case it does on the Wen Ho Li and Richard Jewell cases... in short, spare us.

Posted by the talking dog at September 23, 2007 8:28 PM

I spent a whole hour writing a response, but was blocked from posting due to "questionable content".

Since it contained no expletives, I have no idea what the problem is. But If you don't want me to post on your site, just say so.


Posted by rummy at September 23, 2007 11:59 PM

Automatic filtering, Rummy; I had to use the word "sleuthing" myself because the-- what the i stands for in FBI-- word I wanted contained three random letters the filter doesn't like. [You'd not have gotten this far if we didn't want you posting...!]

Posted by the talking dog at September 24, 2007 8:23 AM

A lot of interesting stuff.

I have a specific issue about anthrax and also biowarfare.

First, in general biowarfare is hard to use. You have to have a lot of people packed together, generally. Disseminating germs or spores over a large area is apparently not easy; the volume needed is small, but delivering tiny amounts to a lot of people is difficult.

Second, anthrax specifically is responsive to antibiotics. By and large penicillin works. (If there were a resistant MRSA-type anthrax strain, resistant to all known antibiotics, that would be bad. Whether there is, I have no idea; no one has said that there is.) The reason why the anthrax death rate used to be so high apparently was that it's hard to diagnose in early stages, and incurable in later stages, and for a long time it was a very rare disease which was seldom diagnosed in time.

My general conclusion is that anthrax is a genuine threat, but a much lower-level, less terrifying threat than it's been made out to be. Nothing like a nuclear bomb or even a dirty bomb.

Anthrax also is a limited battlefield weapon since it needs a couple days to take effect. You need lead time.

I've sometimes wondered whether anthrax weaponizing isn't a boondoggle prooted by scare stories. The only advantage anthrax seems to have is that it's spores are very, very durable and long-lived.

My information is from the standard medical books, at a medical school bookstore ca. 2001: Mandell (2 vols.: definitive) and "Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Infectious Disease").

Posted by John Emerson at September 24, 2007 3:17 PM

The bureau claims to have tested personal effects, cars and the dwellings of Atta and the other hijackers, and didn't find a single trace of anthrax.

Considering how carelessly these guys treated evidence linking themselves to the 9/11 plot, it seems extremely unlikely that that they wouldn't have left behind a single trace of anthrax, had they been involved with it in any way (especially if one of them had actually been infected with it).

But just for the sake of argument, let's pretend they were involved with Amerithrax. And while we're at it, we'll also pretend the Colonel's right, and al qaida actually developed it's own weaponized form of anthrax. (I'm not going to speculate on how or where or even who actually weaponized it, because I'm not writing a book here, so let's just assume it was done by Atta et al in their spare time.) Now, it's been reported that Mohamed Atta supposedly tried to buy a crop duster, and it's been postulated that he wanted to use that airplane to spread anthrax spores. But when Atta wasn't able to get the plane, the next best plan he could come up with was to put the spores into envelopes and mail it to his intended victims?

Come on, Dog... you called some of my OJ comments "Silliness" - well, I believe that term applies equally well to the idea that al qaida went to all the trouble of developing weaponized anthrax, used it to kill a grand total of 5 americans, never took credit for the achievement, and then never ever used it again - especially after we invaded Afganistan and were killing AQ operatives like flies!

I don't mean to bust your chops, but whatever the FBI might be trying to cover up in the Amerithrax investagation, it almost certainly is NOT an al qaida connection! (Not that I believe everything the bureau says, but it does have at least SOME credbility - when asked to find evidence tying UBL to 9/11, the bureau said there wasn't any... and apparently maintains that position to this day. It would've been far easier politically to just make something up, no?)

If you want to openly debate what the FBI is really covering up, ok. But don't mock me for not buying into the absurd idea that the bureau is covering for al qaida. (Or the even more absurd idea that the feds turned away from AQ by mistake - as with President Bush's failure to take immediate action on 9/11, there is a limit to what can be explained away by incompetance or even sheer stupidity!)


Posted by rummy at September 25, 2007 4:57 PM

Fair points, all, Rummy... however, the FBI certainly does have institutional incentives to cover for what has been by and large a fruitless endeavor in the anthrax area. Also, it had a role in failing to string together large swathes of evidence of the 9-11 plot before 9-11 (in part, Ashcroft blames "the wall" that he himself kept erect... I'd love to blame Ashcroft, but he was just one inept figure among many), all the more reason to be skeptical of the FBI's treatment of this subject.

The point of this discussion is as much just to throw it out there and see where it goes as it is to see if the theories hold water. You, and John E., have certainly called into question a lot of aspects of an AQ/'thrax connection that, I admit, make the ultimate connection between the two seem somewhat unlikely...

But to quote... well, Rummy... the abence of evidence is not necessarily the evidence of absence. It is certainly plausible-- hell, I'll concede more likely than not-- that the strands tying Qaeda/Atta and anthrax would have led nowhere...

Col. Larsen's point-- which I think is well-taken-- is that there is strong evidence that the FBI simply decided they had their scapegoat (an unfortunate MO of the Bureau; see Li, Wen Ho; Jewll, Richard) and simply didn't follow those potential strands to their appropriate dead ends, but rather, chose to simply tell us they were dead ends and not even worth following up... And given the rather negligible likelihood that Saddam had RBS (really bad sh*t) that were used to justify a bloody war, I daresay there was at least more than enough there to have at least conducted a more thorough inquiry into those possibilities.

(Also, please note the use of the term "silly" by me in comments here isn't meant as mockingly as it elsewhere might; it conveys an expression of a certain degree of amusement on my part.)

That said, I'm not even sure Col. Larsen himself is fully convinced of this particular connection... I think he is trying to say that, however lucky we may have been in the past, the ability of terrorists potentially to quickly "re-load" and repeat a successful bio-attack over and over again makes this among the most troubling threats-- even if we are lucky that thus far the casualty counts are comparatively low, when you count the economic disruption and lifestyle changes-- and yes, sheer terror-- such attacks would generate. Again, all the more reason why it would have been more comforting had the FBI been more open-minded, and clearly made sure this angle really was a dead-end (something neither Col. Larsen nor I are convinced that it did.)

Posted by the talking dog at September 25, 2007 10:28 PM

Hmm ...

Great interview! At least he admits DHS is an ineffective $$$ black hole.

Hard for me to judge Larsen since anyone who can walk into the White House, with or without a vial and mask, is far above my pay grade. He does seem to realize politicians are only interested in be elected and the revolving door.

Aw shucks ... Hello People!

Fear is the weapon of mass destruction and distraction.

While we run around like scared chickens, the buggars are dismantling the country right before our eyes. Who ya gonna vote for ... not wasting my time ... there is nobody to vote for ... the parties are all the same and the same agenda moves forward at the speed of a freight train.

Honestly there is not much hope unless Americans turn off the tube and educated themselves.

No matter, do not worry about Granny ... hidden down south in the green hills.

Be of Joy, love your kids and partners and most of all ... pet a cat or dog ... I vote for cats.


Posted by Granny at October 3, 2007 12:52 AM

There is a great deal of evidence that Atta associates encountered anthrax. Marwan al Shehhi had anthrax infection days before 9/11. The FBI is aware of this, and the encounter is confirmable (will be happy to relay the specifics to the FBI AGAIN). A physician who had encountered anthrax infection diagnosed al Shehhi's infection. al Shehhi's cohorts refused to allow him to seek immediate treatment. I am told that al qaeda may have vaccinated those who were to work with anthrax, but it is obvious that anyone with active anthrax infection, whether vaccinated or not, should seek immediate treatment.

The United States, under President Clinton, made serious efforts to arrest the leaders of the al qaeda cells responsible for mounting attacks with anthrax, to prevent subsequent attacks. They did not succeed.

Some anthrax letters were mailed. Several were delivered. Not all were mailed in two waves.

This is not rehashed information, it is ignored information.

CUTANEOUS, not subcutaneous anthrax is caused by spores entering the site of a wound, sore or abrasion on the body. It does not necessarily occur on a particular limb, although lymph glands between the site of lesion and the trunk of the body do swell with progression of the illness.

Ingested forms of the illness generally present with a facial rash like smallpox, but the rash generally occurs on the arms and face and there is bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract with anemia and cramping, body aches, etc.

Colonel Larsen is absolutely correct.

Al qaeda got the seed spores from whatever was often sent through the mails and there were several good sources in the US private sector. Al qaeda attacked various citizens in the United States with bioweapons strains of bacteriae and rickettsiae for a number of years. I am quite certain they have employed sarin, tabun, VX, hydrogen cyanide, and solanine/nicotine in attacks on citizens in the US......not many, but some.

Posted by Annie at October 8, 2007 8:41 PM