A deadly cloud of paranoia drifts across the US

Mr Clinton has cleverly conflated domestic panic over terrorism with an exaggerated report on Iraq's arsenal; THE 'THREAT'
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Americans were well primed for the bombing of Iraq. As the Clinton sup-porter in the Chicago diner told the breakfast TV interviewer: "It's the WMD sites I'm worried about". WMD, or Weapons of Mass Destruction, is this war's buzz-phrase.

Sandy Berger, Mr Clinton's national security adviser, didn't even bother to spell it out. The goal, he said, was to "degrade" Saddam's "WMD capability" - as though the acronym was as familiar today as MASH in the Korean War, or MAD during the Cold War.

Over the past year, Americans have been deluged with grim predictions from Pentagon and CIA officials about the "new threat" from WMD, mostly chemical and biological weapons. They say America is in greater danger from WMD than at any time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. A WMD attack is "inevitable" said the Secretary of Defense, William Cohen. Deranged dictators, religious fanatics or madmen will use backpack nuclear bombs, aerosols of nerve gas, or plastic bags of anthrax powder. It's not a question of "if" but "when".

Saddam Hussein was always the focus of this grisly canvas, and most recently through the report of the Australian diplomat, Richard Butler, the UN's chief weapons inspector in Iraq and the "trigger" for the US Desert Fox operation. Mr Butler's Unscom report last Tuesday concluded that the UN inspectors were "unable to conduct the substantive disarmament work" required by the UN Security Council, and the report thus became the justification, or the "neutral judge", used by President Clinton as the reason for the bombing.

But well before last week's military action, questions were asked about the seriousness of the new WMD threat being peddled in Washington. Faced with a ballooning Pentagon budget for anti-WMD measures, Senator Fred Thompson, a Republican of Tennessee, asked of the new threat: "Is [it] being overblown?" And similar questions are now being asked about Mr Butler's report. Did the evidence concur with his provocative conclusion? Or has Mr Butler been an instrument of something other than the UN Security Council?

America is now spending $7bn (pounds 4.2bn) a year defending itself against terrorism. So many different agencies are shoring up the nation's anti- terrorist and WMD defences, according to the government auditor, that it's hard to keep track of where all the money is going, let alone whether it is being spent wisely.

Any new government project tagged with the word "terrorism" goes to the top of the pile in Congress. The Pentagon is ordering devices to sniff out nerve gases and deadly germs. National Guard units that normally deal with floods and hurricanes are being trained as chemical and biological Swat teams. Under constant threat of another war with Iraq, all 2.4 million American troops are being vaccinated against anthrax.

Indeed, the pace at which the WMD threat has taken centre stage is almost as unnerving as the threat itself. In the media, a Russian defector from Soviet days, Ken Alibek, talks alarmingly of new strains of untreatable anthrax and deadly cocktails of smallpox and Ebola; teenage hackers invade Pentagon computers; Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese doomsday cult which sprayed a Tokyo subway with nerve gas, is said to be back, if not in action; and three Texans are charged with plotting to assassinate President Clinton with a cactus needle coated with botulism flicked from a cigarette lighter.

There is a sense of panic. Each week, it seems, another WMD "false alarm" is reported. In the last month police in Florida dropped a bag of what they thought was an illegal drug. White stuff spilled out that fitted a description of ricin, a biological agent made from castor oil beans and 6,000 times more toxic than cyanide. After the alarm was raised, it turned out to be cleaning powder. In Ohio, an abortion clinic received eight envelopes through the post containing a brown powder and a note saying: "You have just been exposed to anthrax". Twenty-nine people went to hospital, but the powder was harmless. In Chicago, a Catholic anti- abortion group received similar letters, also containing a harmless powder, but four church administrators were washed down with soap and water.

When President Clinton's justification for going to war is examined by Congressional inquiry, Mr Butler's blustering style will come under scrutiny, and his slim 10-page report will be compared with the 17-page Iraqi report of the same inspection period, mid-November to mid-December.

At the UN, the Iraqis and the Russians have already complained that the Butler report actually covered 300 inspections, and only five were turned down. So, they argue, how could this be a reason to go to war? The Butler report, conveniently for President Clinton, doesn't mention figures. The paragraph headed "Monitoring Inspections" begins: "In statistical terms, the majority of facilities and sites under the ongoing monitoring system were carried out with Iraq's co-operation."

In another incident, the blustering Mr Butler demanded to inspect a building on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, and was rebuffed. The question will be asked: If President Clinton was sensitive enough of the Muslim diary not to launch an attack during Ramadan (the reason given for Wednesday's start, because Ramadan begins this weekend) then why was Mr Butler so insensitive as to ask for an inspection on a Friday?

Finally, as the targets are identified, still more questions arise as to the original goal. On the first day, US officials said the aim was to "degrade" Saddam's "WMD capability". On the second day, Secretary of Defense Cohen admitted that known WMD storage sites were not on the target list. "Why not?" the man in the Chicago diner might well ask. "Wasn't that the point?" But if you blow up a dump containing deadly gas or germs, the chances are it will form a cloud and drift on the wind, killing people in its path. President Clinton's new problem is that priming a public for war means expectations have to be fulfilled, or disenchantment sets in.