Federal officials sent teams of scientists and more than 1,000 radiation-detection "pagers" to local police forces in several big cities out of concern that al Qaeda terrorists would try to explode a "dirty bomb" during the New Year's holiday festivities, ABCNEWS has learned.
On Dec. 21 — the same day the government raised the nation's terror alert level to "high" — the Department of Homeland Security sent a bulletin to local law enforcement agencies warning that detonating a dirty bomb was "a top al Qaeda objective."
Officials were concerned that al Qaeda members were focused on stealing or producing chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials to possibly produce a dirty bomb, the bulletin warned. Such bombs use conventional explosives to scatter radioactive material over a wide area.
"The problem with a dirty bomb is not that it will kill a lot of people, but that it will scare a lot of people," said ABCNEWS consultant Dick Clarke. "A dirty bomb is a pure terror weapon designed to cause panic [and] collapse in economic markets."
The extraordinary measures were taken because intelligence from multiple sources indicated al Qaeda members were preparing an assault more devastating than the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, senior administration sources told ABCNEWS.
There was no specific dirty bomb threat, sources said, but government officials planned for a worst-case scenario.
In anticipation of possible radiological or dirty bomb attacks, the Department of Homeland Security sent more than 1,000 radiation-detection devices, known as pagers, to police in Seattle, Detroit, Atlanta and Houston because of the expected large New Year's Eve crowds in those cities.
Batches of radiation pagers were also flown to authorities monitoring festivities at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., and the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. The hope, sources said, was that police on routine patrol at these events would carry the devices and be alerted at the first sign of any radiation.
Secretly Deployed Scientists
In addition, four small units of slightly more than two dozen nuclear scientists from the Department of Energy's Nuclear Incident Response Teams were dispatched to New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Washington. These scientists, equipped with portable, sophisticated radiation-detection devices, secretly moved throughout those cities, where large New Year's Eve crowds were expected.
Many of these scientists, sources said, remain on standby at nuclear facilities such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
In Baltimore and other cities with large ports, Coast Guard patrols — which are often equipped with radiation-detection devices — were ordered to monitor major ports for any sign of radiation, sources said. Large radiation scanners were also moved to locations with high volumes of traffic such as bridges.
Precaution Is the Only Preparation
When the nation elevated its terror alert from yellow to orange, the FBI sent a bulletin to local police that said a top al Qaeda objective was using weapons of mass destruction. Secretary of State Colin Powell today told ABCNEWS' Nightline that extra measures were the only way to prepare for a possible attack.
"I don't know how likely it is that there's a radiological weapon somewhere in the country," Powell said. "But if we know how to guard against that by disseminating around the country, nuclear scientists who have the wherewithal to monitor and measure, then that's the prudent step to take."
Government officials were also concerned about dirty bombs because, they say, thousands of pounds of explosives and nearly 900 radiological devices have been stolen in the United States in the last three years.
While administration officials focused heavily on possible dirty bomb attacks, ABCNEWS has learned that a bulletin from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security also instructed local officials to look out for biological and chemical weapons. In the bulletin, they warned local police specifically to look for "unusual powders or liquids, droplets, mists, clouds," especially in unlikely or sensitive locations such as those near "air intake systems."
The bulletin also told local authorities to look out for concentrations of dead animals, birds, fish or insects.
Reported by ABCNEWS' Pierre Thomas, Mary Walsh and Jason Ryan.