The California National Guard has created two special units, one to be deployed at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Los Alamitos this summer, as part of a nationwide effort to help local authorities respond to biological and chemical terrorism.
The units were established as part of a 1995 presidential directive following the death of 168 people in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It has taken five years to plan and pay for the units.
"The purpose of these teams is to prepare us to respond if and when a terrorist incident occurs," said Col. Lou Antonetti, the Guard's director of plans, operations and security in Sacramento. "The threat of domestic terrorism is not a question of will it happen, but when."
Each team has 22 soldiers with specialized skills that will also enable them to respond to nuclear and radiological emergencies. A total of 27 National Guard units--called Weapons of Mass Destruction Teams--will be stationed in 26 states by late 2001. California will be the only state with two teams.
One unit, more than a year in training, has already been formed at Los Alamitos. Guard officials are in the process of staffing the second unit, which will be deployed late next year to the Bay Area, said Antonetti.
Although the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing involved conventional explosives, federal and Guard officials said it increased President Clinton's concern about biological and chemical terrorism in the United States.
"It was that incident, more than any other, that shook up the government," said Mike Wermuth, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corp. in Washington. "There is reason to believe that terrorism is becoming more violent."
Department of Defense planners chose to assign National Guard soldiers rather than active-duty personnel to the new anti-terrorist teams because the Guard is under state control and has a history of working with local police, fire departments and hazardous materials crews.
Military officials said the teams symbolize the National Guard's growing role in the nation's defense as the Pentagon reduces the active forces. In addition to serving as a backup to local civilian emergency crews, the teams can be mobilized and integrated with Army units in the event of a conflict overseas.
The Los Alamitos-based unit has been designated the 9th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team and will also cover Nevada and Oregon. Officials expect the team to be in place 30 to 60 days after receiving all of its equipment this summer.
Assembling the 27 teams, including training and equipment, will cost $135 million, Pentagon officials said. The federally funded units will be staffed by full-time National Guard personnel.
Guard officials said two teams are needed to protect the heavily populated areas of Southern California and the Bay Area. The population density in both places--especially in San Francisco, which has miles of subway and rail lines and towering office buildings--could make them possible terrorist targets. For the Bay Area team, the guard is recruiting nationally, looking for a nuclear medicine officer and specialists in communications, emergency medicine and other skills.
The mission of the teams will be to back up "first responders"--local emergency crews--with state-of-the-art equipment that can quickly identify chemical and biological agents.
Maj. John Buethe, commander of the Los Alamitos team, said a portable machine used by the teams can "sniff" and identify 43,000 chemicals, including sarin and mustard gas. A portable laboratory can also quickly identify most biological agents, he said.
"Our mission is to go in, get a sample and identify the agent quickly so civilian emergency crews can protect lives and clean up an area," Buethe said.
Rand analyst Wermuth said the "concept behind the teams is sound" but warned that they are not intended to prevent a terrorist attack.
"Only timely intelligence can stop terrorists from striking," Wermuth said. "These teams bring the enormous capability of the federal government with them when they respond to an incident.
"Because of their connection to the U.S. military and federal agencies, they have the authority to get additional resources very quickly if a situation requires."
In December, Rand helped prepare a report for the White House and Congress that reviewed the nation's capability to respond to an attack by terrorists who use chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological weapons.
The report, which Wermuth had a role in preparing, said that the U.S. "will always be vulnerable to terrorism" and that a national strategy to combat terrorism "is urgently needed."
The report also noted that local, state and national emergency response systems already in place provide "a solid foundation" in preparing for a terrorist attack.
Although the report did not mention any specific threats, it noted the extremes to which terrorists will go to make and use a biological or chemical weapon. It also stressed the difficulty of making an effective weapon of mass destruction.
According to the Rand report, the Aum Shinrikyo cult spent $30 million, used a state-of-the-art laboratory and 80 researchers led by a scientist to produce a sarin weapon to attack those on the crowded subway system in Tokyo one month before the Oklahoma City bombing.
Cult members released the deadly nerve gas from plastic bags poked open with umbrella tips and killed 12 people, though they said they intended to kill thousands.
Although the number of victims was small, Wermuth said, the cult succeeded in another terrorist objective: striking fear into a society unprepared for such an attack.