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Is U.S. ready for chemical attack?

Associated Press Published: April 27, 1998 12:00 AM

Underway for nearly a year, the review is expected to yield two new directives from President Clinton on enhancing the nation's ability to fend off chemical, biological or cyber-weapons and on responding swiftly if such an attack occurs, according to a White House official who spoke Sunday on condition of anonymity.

The review addresses several "transnational threats" such as terrorism, international crime and attacks on critical infrastructure, the official said. The official would not say when Clinton might issue the directives.

Congress also has been addressing the issue with a series of hearings and reports by the General Accounting Office.

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Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, ranking Democrat on the House National Security Committee complained last week that no single government agency is in charge of fighting terrorists in America.

"I hope this is all academic, but I'm afraid it won't be," he said.

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He went on Thursday to urge Congress order the agencies involved _ 43 in all _ to develop government-wide priorities, create a chain of command and get training and equipment to local law enforcement agencies.

"There's a great uncertainty as to who's in charge, who coordinates it, who offers people to the scene and who works on preventing it," Skelton said. "I think it's going to be a year before you have any answer."

His remarks came a day after Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh told a Senate panel the administration is working on a new directive outlining federal roles for counterterrorism that would replace the directive issued after the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people and injured hundreds more.

They gave no indication when it would be ready for Clinton's signature

Freeh said he was resisting a suggestion within the administration to put the Secret Service _ instead of the FBI _ in charge of counterterrorism activities.

The need to address terrorism has taken on a new urgency in light of several incidents, domestically and abroad, since Clinton took office in 1993.

In addition to the Oklahoma City bombing, six people were killed and 1,000 injured in 1993 when a terrorist bomb blew up at the World Trade Center in New York.

Concern swelled among U.S. officials in March 1995, when a Japanese cult carried out a lethal nerve gas attack on the subway in Tokyo, killing 12 and injuring 5,000. Later that year, Iraq admitted having built a large arsenal of biological weapons _ and had been ready to use it four years earlier during the Gulf War.

The official said Sunday that researchers were looking carefully at an incident in Washington last year, in which a package purportedly containing the lethal chemical anthrax was sent to the offices of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. No anthrax was found.

Clinton signed a directive in June 1995 that declared stopping terrorists from obtaining weapons of mass destruction a high priority of his administration and Congress began dispensing billions of dollars for anti-terrorism programs.

Freeh testified last week that a national stockpile of vaccines, antibiotics and antidotes might be created to save lives in the wake of a terrorist attack.

The ongoing review also is analyzing the needs of cities as they come up with a chemical attack response plan. That research involves the Pentagon, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Public Health Service.

Despite a $30 million plan to prepare as many as 120 American cities to deal with terrorist attacks, congressional investigators have found that only about two dozen actually have received training.

A GAO report two weeks ago found that federal, state and local officials have not yet identified the threat facing each city and which types of training and equipment are needed. In 1996 terrorism legislation, Congress set aside about $300,000 for such needs in each of the 120 biggest American cities.

The April 15 report, the fourth in a series on U.S. efforts to battle terrorism, said emergency response personnel in only 11 cities had completed the program at the time of the GAO review.

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