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Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2004 / 11 Shevat, 5764

Jonathan Turley

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Senate powder is the least of Congress' security concerns | It could be called that little terrorist engine that could. The slow-moving train appears regularly in Washington, pulling 90-ton tank cars of poisonous gas into the heart of the Capitol.

The tracks are easily accessible above ground and run within four blocks of the U.S. Capitol and just behind various congressional office buildings and vital federal agencies. Run by railroad giant CSX, the train is a rolling, ready-made weapon of mass destruction. Yet, despite numerous warnings from the FBI and outside experts, the Bush administration has kept the little train running on a hope and a prayer that no terrorist takes notice.

For many, the very idea of a train carrying poisonous gases through the Capitol complex is simply unbelievable. After all, the train is visible from Reagan Washington National Airport, where passengers have been shaken down for nail cutters as too risky to put on airplanes.

The obvious danger to the government has in fact been raised by experts. After Sept. 11, the trains were stopped for 72 hours and periodically during special events, such as the State of the Union, the trains are halted. However, as soon as the party ends, the trains roll again.

FBI Special Agent Troy Morgan, an expert in weapons of mass destruction, has described these trains as easily available weapons of mass destruction. "You've heard about sarin and other chemical weapons in the news," he said, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported. "But it's far easier to attack a rail car full of toxic industrial chemicals than it is to compromise the security of a military base and obtain these materials."

Morgan's concerns are shared by many other outside experts who are in disbelief that these trains have not been re-routed around major cities, particularly the Capitol. Even the Chlorine Institute, a Washington-based industry group, admits that a single 90-ton tank exploding would produce a cloud covering over 41 miles.

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Jay Boris, a senior scientist for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, recently revealed the expected casualties from just one of the 90-ton tanks exploding in a terrorist attack or accident.

Such an explosion would produce a potentially lethal cloud that would cover a 14-mile radius — an area covering the vast majority of federal agencies (including the FBI headquarters, Secret Service headquarters and Justice Department), Congress, the Supreme Court and the White House. Projected deaths would occur "at the rate of 100 per second," and both the legislative and executive branches would be crippled. An estimated 2.4 million people would be at serious risk, and tens of millions would likely panic at the loss of life.

Ironically, groups like Greenpeace have been trying to force the administration to address these national security risks — to no avail. Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have produced pictures showing the trains with the Capitol looming in the background or just behind buildings like the Rayburn House Office Building. These pictures notably show graffiti on the sides of the tanks to illustrate the easy contact with the tank cars. Yet the government appears to believe that terrorists could never accomplish what teenagers routinely do in climbing on these cars and planting their own mementos for public view.

Of course, for the less energetic terrorist, the tanks could be blown with high-powered rifles or a grenade. Multiple tanks could be exploded producing the type of lethal cloud that killed thousands in Bhopal, India, in 1984.

For the discriminating terrorist, the administration has allowed such shipments to pass through virtually every major city including Chicago, Los Angeles and other "high-value target cities." Across the country, 800,000 such shipments of hazardous materials pass through towns and cities each day. There are 100,000 shipments of chlorine each year.

Despite the obvious dangers, lobbyists have successfully opposed efforts to re-route the shipments due to their cost to companies like CSX. The Chlorine Institute insisted, "it is clear beyond doubt that no plan, no matter how well-conceived and well-implemented, can 'assure' that terrorists will be prevented from carrying out their acts of terror."

This may be true, but wouldn't it be comforting to try? One obvious approach is to bar the transport of large quantities of chemicals listed as "toxic by inhalation" within the Capitol area and through other major cities.

These tank cars magnify concerns that the government is quick to demand sacrifices of individual citizens but slow to do so with corporate citizens. Whole roads have been closed off to citizens in D.C. in fear of car bombs while trains carrying tons of poisonous chemicals are allowed to move in the shadow of the Capitol Dome at low speeds and without meaningful protection.

Congress needs to address this issue and force immediate action to reduce the threat identified by the FBI and outside experts. Otherwise, the little terrorist engine that could may soon be a bedtime story for every terrorist family. Of course, few would believe that any such thing could really happen outside of a fanatic's fable.

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JWR contributor Jonathan Turleyis a professor at George Washington Law School who has consulted on homeland security issues with federal and state legislators. Click here to visit his website. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2003, Jonathan Turley