It is the fear that few people are talking about. But for those who work in counter-terrorism it is the fear that keeps them awake at night. It has to do with terrorists and trying to figure out what they may do next to hurt the United States. For many, it's not a question of "if" terrorists will strike again....but "when".
We're not trying to scare anyone with this story. What we are trying to do is give you an opportunity to hear from those who say they are extremely concerned about the nation's food supply.
Your local grocery store. Row after row....shelf after shelf...of food. All sorts of goodies all in one place.....with few thinking about what would happen if our food supply somehow became infected by a terror attack. And if you think that is beyond the realm of possibility.....it is not.
Brian Allen: "To your knowledge, have we been close? Have we dodged a bullet? Has there been any type of operation....domestic based...international based...to do just this...that's been thwarted?"
Brendan Johnson: "Well, I am limited in what I can tell you."
Brendan Johnson has been South Dakota's United States Attorney for more than 3 years. And almost from day one, he has been frank about saying our state is a prime target for terrorists looking to disrupt and destroy the nation's food supply. "We're a big state and we're a rural state. that makes us potentially an inviting target to someone who would want to seriously injure our farming/ ranching economy."
And it's that concern...and a search for answers...that took us nearly 600 miles away....to Bloomington, Illinois...so we could talk with this man. "With the FBI I'm what's known as the weapons of mass destruction coordinator." Steffan Nass is a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigations.....southern Illinois division. "My position is the one that seeks to prevent the use of what are typically known as weapons of mass destruction; that being the chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear devices."
All are weapons terrorists would like to get their hands on...all could be used to taint the nation's ability to produce food. And it is a scenario that Special Agent Nass says would be frightening in both it's quickness and it's devastation. "The impact of any attack against the food supply would be devastating regardless of what sector."
So what is the most likely way terrorists could sabotage the nation's food supply? The answer points to some type of biological attack....involving a virus that could easily be spread among livestock of all type: a virus that would kill livestock...would limit supply of beef, pork, chicken...and not only limit supply but immediately damage consumer confidence. The ag sector could easily collapse under the weight of all that.
Illinois is known as a land of history. Illinois is making history again but for what it's doing in the present. They have a state level task force, specifically designed for agro-security. In other words, a task force whose only goal is to protect the food supply from terror attack.
It involves law enforcement: Steffan Nass helped build this task force. It also involves several of Illinois' top ag groups, among them the Illinois Farm Bureau. Dave Patton is the group's field operations manager. "It is a reality of something that could occur. hopefully it will not. but it is a possibility." Patton tells me the idea of a biological attack on livestock keeps him awake at night. Especially if the infected herd is in a rural area...where an attack could go unnoticed and it's effects could go undiagnosed and in theory, unchecked. "The longer something like that is unidentified your potential spread increases."
A spread that could infect whole herds....an infection that could make it's way into meat packing plants. It is this fear that Patton says made it an easy choice to join forces with the FBI and establish Illinois's agro-security task force. "We have taken a pro-active approach instead of a reactive approach. As we sit here, I hope we never have to deal with such an event."
In addition to Illinois, only two other states have specific agro-terrorism task forces: Wisconsin and New Mexico. And that brings us back to South Dakota.. "A big part of my concern when it comes to agro-terrorism is that in South Dakota we would have a foreign virus intentionally ....for example...introduced into a feed lot." U-S Attorney Brendan Johnson has the exact same scenario on his mind as they do in Illinois. But South Dakota does not have an agro-security task force. Neither does Iowa, Minnesota or North Dakota.. But Johnson tells me, behind the scenes, his office is working with local and regional law enforcement...working with lawmakers in Pierre and in Washington... to keep track of any possible threats and working to stop their nightmare scenario from coming true. "In my office, we have an individual with a military background who is an intelligence specialist. and what he does ...all day....every day....is to monitor threats and to work with our law enforcement partners at every level."
If this happened..if a biological threat were unleashed...an entire industry could be ruined and an entire nation would be thrown into chaos. And to underscore the threat one final time...earlier in this story...I asked U-S Attorney Johnson is we had dodged a bullet...if a scenario like this had ever come close to happening...this is how he answered that question. "So...yes....with the caveat that I can't get into all the specifics."
The U-S Attorney would not reveal if the situation he was talking about happened here in South Dakota...a neighboring state...or somewhere else in the nation. What he does say is that it wouldn't take very many head of cattle to get sick...to shut down the entire industry.