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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Dirty bomb movie

Tonight, the Kennedy School screened HBO's "Dirty War."

The movie is well-done and certainly provocative. If you haven't seen it yet, I'd recommend watching soon. The users at give it only 6.6 out of 10, but I'd probably rate it about 7.5.

After the screening, a heavy-hitting panel of Graham Allison, Rand Beers, and Richard Clarke discussed the movie's terrorism scenario. In the film a set of terror cells plan and successfully implement a dirty bomb attack on London.

All three called the film quite realistic.

Indeed, some of the remarks were, well, scary.

Allison, a professor in the Government Department and former Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, said that a dirty bomb attack is "long overdue." He finds it hard to explain why an attack has not already happened.


Allison also said that he worries "very much" about a smallpox attack and "most" about an actual nuclear bomb.

Beers, who was a foreign policy advisor to John Kerry (and as recently as 2002 was Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Combating Terrorism), raised a lot of good questions. Is the US ready to deal with this threat from terrorists? How much should the US spend to counter terror? Who has the power to regulate threats such as transportation of deadly chemicals?

And Beers declared that the US will never be able to answer the question, "How much is enough?" in terms of anti-terror effort and spending.

As for potential tradeoffs between human rights and anti-terror, Beers said that such questions would be decided by public dialogue.

I hope he's right. Clarke pointed out that we need to have these debates now, before the next attack.

Clarke, who was the top anti-terror guy on the National Security Council on 9/11, was his usual pessimistic self. Washington DC, as of two years ago, had only 2 decontamination units. In the HBO film, London has 10, which can each decontaminate 200 people per hour...but several hundred thousand people might be exposed to radiation in a dirty bomb attack.

Do the math; it isn't good: at 200 people "processed" per hour, it would take 1250 hours (52 days) to decontaminate a quarter of a million people.

Clarke also claimed that the US has made no effort to establish minimim essential conditions for security. In other words, we don't even know what would be required to provide safety.

And while Clarke acknowledged that there's no way to know for sure, the number of jihadists has likely increased "significantly" over the past two years.

Bottom line since 9/11: more terrorists, poor preparation for their attacks, and many worst-case scenarios are quite realistic -- if not likely.

Editing note: I fixed the math typo above. With 2 decontamination machines (handling 400 people per hour), a quarter million people could be "processed" in 26 days. With 10 machines, it would take a bit more than 5 days.

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