Homeland Security officials were terrified of a potential "dirty" bomb attack over the New Year's holiday -- even though they had no intelligence suggesting such an attack.According to the Washington Post, "the U.S. government last month dispatched scores of casually dressed nuclear scientists with sophisticated radiation detection equipment hidden in briefcases and golf bags to scour five major U.S. cities for radiological, or 'dirty,' bombs."
The attention to a potential dirty bomb, for example, resulted not from specific recent information indicating such an attack but from the belief among officials that al Qaeda is sparing no effort to try to detonate one.The terrorism crisis began late on Dec. 19, when analysts assembled what they described as extremely specific intelligence, including electronic intercepts of al Qaeda operatives' telephone calls or e-mails. One fear was that al Qaeda would hijack and crash an overseas flight into a U.S. city or the ocean. Another was that terrorists would shoot down an airliner with a shoulder-fired missile.U.S. officials also became concerned that a large, open-air New Year's Eve celebration might be targeted. While the perimeters of football stadiums can generally be secured, outdoor celebrations are much more vulnerable, they said.One of the U.S. officials' main fears was of a dirty bomb, in which a conventional bomb is detonated and spews radioactive material and radiation across a small area. Security specialists say such a weapon is unlikely to cause mass casualties but could cause panic and devastate a local economy.On the same day that Ridge raised the national threat level to orange ("high") from yellow ("elevated"), the Homeland Security Department sent out large fixed radiation detectors and hundreds of pager-size radiation monitors for use by police in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, Houston, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Detroit. (emphasis mine)