Sally Quinn

We Can Take It … the Truth That Is, Part II

VTR Date: January 12, 2004

Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn discusses the threat of bioterrorism.


GUEST: Sally Quinn
VTR: 01/12/2004

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is our second program on the status of America’s civilian defense against bioterrorism with Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn, who as a reporter in the nation’s capital has had an unbeatable front and center view of what both our government and our press are doing and not doing to help Americans deal realistically and practically with the potential threat bioterrorism poses to each and every one of us.

And Ms. Quinn I thought that today it would be fair to look at your friends in the press, electronic and print, in a sense whatever it is that the government does, the interpretation of what it does is going to be offered by print and electronic media. How well are they doing?

QUINN: Well, you know, the press reports what’s happening and if there’s not a lot happening in the Homeland Security … on the Homeland Security front, then there’s not a lot to report. And I think the Washington Post, I have to say, has probably done a better job than any newspaper.

We did put out this whole special section last Fall which was very comprehensive and I think was incredibly useful. And that was not in response to anything, that was simply something that we did on our own.

But I think that, I think the press could probably do a better job of kind of reminding people that this is … that security is still an issue. And that we still need to be prepared and we still need to, to get more information from the government. You know, it’s, it’s … there’s a campaign on now and there’s a war going on in Iraq and those things seem to take precedence over, over Homeland Security, even when we had a recent Orange Alert.

So I think that the media gets focused on one thing, and then they get focused on something else. And I think that Homeland Security is really not the issue right now. Everyone is just sort of hoping that when they say, “Orange Alert” that there are enough policemen and, and first-responders out there to take care of us if anything happens. But there hasn’t been a lot written about what we can do … recently.

HEFFNER: That’s the thing that puzzles me so. Not written, or shown on, on television. Or spoken about on radio.

QUINN: Well, I think you …you’ve got to have something new and when, when it first came out …when the whole duct tape thing came out and then when the Homeland Security put out their website … then it was news. Then there was something to report and there was something to write about. But right now there’s sort of nothing to write about except to sort of say, “P.S. this is a reminder that you need to go out there and, and stock up on water and canned goods”. And I, I … that’s just not a very sexy story right now.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s funny because it seems to me that that is the story … that we’re not doing this. The story that you set before us in our previous program is what I would think the press would have jumped upon sometime back and not let go. Because it is quite a story about our lives, our safety, our security.

QUINN: Well, and you know, there was a lot written a year or so … a year and a half ago … and then there hasn’t been much lately and I suspect that in the last year there have been enormous improvements in safety devices, in all … I mean one of the things we have read about recently is all the airport security and the fingerprinting and now they’re going to have … they want to know more information about every passenger who travels and that sort of thing. And that becomes sort of civil liberties area, as well as a security area.

But in terms of just what citizens can do, I’m sure there are more things out there now. Certainly every, you know, all these companies sprang up when, when … after 9/11 selling gas masks and flash lights and you know, protection kits and home tents and that kind of thing. And I’m sure that … and that was a year ago when there was a lot of focus on that and I’m sure that there’s a lot … there have been a lot more advances since then and no one, no one has reported it. I guess I should get back on to the story …[laughter]


QUINN: … and do it …

HEFFNER: …that wasn’t my suggestion …

QUINN: … I’m as much to blame as anybody else.

HEFFNER: But to see what the press is doing, is I would think … I mean if our agenda, our national agenda is set as consistently as it is by certain leading newspapers … and then the rest of the press and the rest of television and radio … than what in the world are they waiting for?

QUINN: Well, you know, now … now that I think about it, I’m just trying to remember in any of the debates, whether any of the candidates were asked about what they would do for Homeland Security or how people should prepare themselves for a terrorist attack. If, if anybody talked about it, I didn’t see it. I just don’t remember that that was … that’s been a big issue up until now.

HEFFNER: Strange, isn’t it?

QUINN: And, and that’s the press asking questions … the voters asking questions … the candidates asking each other questions and it just, it just doesn’t come up.

HEFFNER: Okay, now what does that tell you about the American people? Vis-à-vis …

QUINN: Well, it tells you that we’re all in denial, is what it tells you. [Laughter] I mean we are all in denial. But, you know, there is … I mean one of the things I wrote about last year is that, and doctors will tell you and psychiatrists will tell you that it’s one thing to have … to be scared or fearful or nervous when there’s an imminent attack because your adrenaline builds up and you’re sort of more ready to defend yourself or to prepare.

But you cannot keep it on that level or you will get sick. It will destroy your immune system; it will make you physically ill. Maybe you’ll have a heart attack. I mean the kind of stress that … maintaining that level of fear and anxiety causes is just not worth it. And people just, people just can’t maintain it, you just can’t do it. And I certainly can’t.

So you, you sort of have to go back to living your daily life and have it sort of somewhere in the back of your head that “oh, my God, you know, there might be a terrorist attack and do I still have water … jugs of water in the basement or not.”

But I, I think that’s the problem since there hasn’t been another attack in this country, that people just have decided to put it out of their heads. And there’s so many other things to worry about. I mean we had SARS last year. Who, who would have thought that would have been something to worry. And the flu this year. And there are just too many other things.

And so unless there’s something that’s imminent, that something that looks … I mean even with the Orange Alert we had recently, there wasn’t anything specific. It was well, maybe it will be in airplanes, but we don’t really know. And maybe it will be in this country, but maybe not, somewhere else. And it just … you know there’s nothing that you can sort of focus on that “oh my gosh, this is what might … really is probably going to happen and therefore I can prepare myself for this.”

And if you don’t have any specific information, it makes you feel a little bit helpless. And nobody wants to feel helpless, so I think people really would… I think people really put these things out of their minds. And you can do that. You can simply say to yourself, “I’m not going to think about it.” And I think that’s where most people are right now today.

And, and I think if there were another attack in this country, obviously people would start thinking about it again. And then the press would start writing about it. And it’s too bad because I think that … somewhere … we ought to be somewhere in between. Obviously we’re not, and shouldn’t be, on this highest level of Alert all the time because we can’t sustain that. And … but we shouldn’t be where we are.

We should be somewhere in the middle, where we are vigilant and constantly aware and continue to be prepare; to check … to do it once a month … just check supplies. May sure your batteries are …there are batteries in your flashlight and your car’s filled up and you’ve got plenty of water and, you know, some people like to have medication around, like doxycyclene or Cipro in case there’s an anthrax attack, or some other kind of biological attack.

Those things are …you know, the government advises you not to get those, not to supply them. I think that’s a mistake, I think everybody should have them, because if there is some kind of an attack, and, and you could take them within three or four days, you could save your life. And it may be if there’s an attack, that the drugstores are closed … your doctor is not in his office, there’s no one to prescribe the medication, you couldn’t get it anyway because there would be a run on it. So I just feel better having it.

I think one of the reasons the government tells you not to … well, there are two reasons, one is because it’s too expensive and most people can’t afford it. And two, they’re worried that people will take the antibiotics every time they get a sniffle, if they have them in the house all the time. And, and that is a worry.

HEFFNER: It is not an unwarranted worry, too.

QUINN: No. Absolutely not. I mean I wouldn’t do it because I know better. And therefore I feel that it’s safe for me to have these supplies around.

HEFFNER: You know, we were talking about the political aspects of all of this. I want to go back to that because I have the feeling that that’s enormously important in terms of how impossible it is. I know from what you’ve written, you want our Chief Person, our Chief Magistrate, our President to take the lead, not assign it to others. To be that figure, to be that FDR delivering a Fireside Chat. Or whatever it might be. Do you think that could happen, you mentioned before that you don’t think that the question of civilian defense has come up in the current debates among the Democratic, the various Democratic candidates for the Presidential nomination. Do you think it’s in the cards?

QUINN: Well, it certainly will be if there’s an attack, and then they’ll be an awfully lot of figure pointing …you know, “why didn’t this candidate or that candidate – whoever has won the nomination if somebody has by then – or whoever has won the election — “We should have been on it, we should have done this, we should have done that.” And there is this sort of amazing tendency that we have in this country, that you know, there’s a sort of a story in a crisis and everybody’s on the case and then suddenly something else happens over here and we forget it. And, and then there’s another catastrophe and everybody then gets criticized for having forgotten it.

You know, there are all these people who are working day and night, people at Johns Hopkins and all kinds of scientists and people in the chemical and biological world, who are, who are constantly vigilant and constantly working with First-Responders and all of those people on this. But most people are not. I mean most people in government just kind of look away, there are too many other things to deal with.

I do wish that the President, not just this President, but any President would address this and would … it … I don’t think it has to be a nationwide address unless there’s an imminent catastrophe, but you could do one of the Saturday morning radio shows and occasional reminder the President could say, “you know, I just … this is just to remind you that every citizen should see it as part of his or her duty to be prepared in case of an attack, and here’s what you need to do.” I don’t see that as a big deal and I think it would make a huge difference.

HEFFNER: You don’t see it as a big deal obviously our politicos do …

QUINN: Clearly they do not think that that’s the wise thing to do. And I think they think it is because the President needs to be upbeat and “well let somebody else handle that, so that the people don’t associate that kind of bad news with the President.”

HEFFNER: And the press, what rationale can we find for it and for what it is not doing?

QUINN: Well, as I said …

HEFFNER: Beside the sexy story.

QUINN: Yeah, as I said, you know, I could just as well criticize myself as anybody else because … because …

HEFFNER: But you said you’re going to get back on the …

QUINN: I am. I am. But, but I … as I say, I just think that these stories are cyclical and as long as there’s not something that has risen to draw attention to this issue recently, then it’s … that was yesterday’s story. And until it becomes today’s story or tomorrow’s story, then, then report on something else.

HEFFNER: What a heck of a commentary on the responsibilities that the press assumes for itself. No?

QUINN: Well, I think it’s more just human nature, you know. You know, there are probably plenty of things we could be reporting on all day, every day. And you have to sort of make a judgment of what is, in terms of news … what is the most important thing that is going on right at this moment and then you also have to judge on what people want to read about. What people want … you know … because news is also a business. If you, if you had stories about Homeland Security and preparedness every day on television, people would switch to another channel, they don’t want to be reminded and they don’t want to hear about it. So …

HEFFNER: What led the Post, the Washington Post , to do its long piece …

QUINN: That special section?


QUINN: Well, just … a group of us decided that this would be a good idea and proposed it to the editor and he thought it was, he thought we should do it.

HEFFNER: Meeting your responsibilities.

QUINN: Yeah. Yeah.


QUINN: And, you know, and I think it was … served the community very well. And so did everybody else.

HEFFNER: If you look around the country, if you look at the small newspapers and I don’t, do you think we’d find more of this than in the big, big papers?

QUINN: No, I don’t. I don’t. I mean, you know, I don’t read a lot of the small newspapers around the country all day, every day, so I’m, you know, I probably shouldn’t say that, but I suspect that it’s probably not an issue. But I mean, if you look at the special section we did last year which was five, ten pages, I mean, ten full pages, I think, something like that, with no ads … that was expensive because we didn’t have ads and we felt that it was probably not the right thing to do to have ads in that section since this was for a community service, so that cost a lot of money.

Suppose we were to do something like that again this year. What would we write? I mean we wrote everything that was, you know, every possible aspect of this issue … you know, what buildings, depending upon what kind of attack, what you should do and how you should deal with your children and you know, psychological effects of the attack. And I mean, it was just … it was totally comprehensive.

I can’t think of how we would do another whole section a year later that would, that wouldn’t be totally repetitious. So I think you’ve got that, that problem, too.

HEFFNER: And if it were repetitious, are you saying that you believe most people took that special section and put it away?

QUINN: Well, I’m …that’s what we hoped that a lot of people would and I know a lot of people did put it and save it. So, I mean, you know … you are in a situation where if you do a story and people don’t see it, do you run the same story the next … you know, six months later and year later because people didn’t see it. I think that, you know, what we probably ought to do is think of a new way to go at the story. Probably a re-appraisal of Homeland Security a year later, would be a … would be one way.

I know that, that one of the things that I think is a big mistake right now with Homeland Security is that, that they, they don’t really have much, they don’t really have a big name in, in the chemical-biological warfare field that they sort of contract that out. And it seems to me that they would do well to have a chem/bio advisor who was very close to Tom Ridge and who had a great deal of responsibility advising them on a daily basis rather than to sort of calling somebody up in the field when they had a question.

HEFFNER: Why don’t they?

QUINN: I think because they just didn’t feel, Ridge came to the Post some months ago, in the summer to discuss this, and basically didn’t feel that it was necessary; felt that there were enough advisors out there to … that they could call on that they didn’t really need to have one in-house. But I feel that if you are the Department of Homeland Security and since so many people think that a chemical or biological attack is not unlikely, that you would want somebody on hand all the time.

HEFFNER: What about the dollars that we’re putting into Homeland Security? Satisfied with the level?

QUINN: Well, it’s really interesting. I don’t know how much they’re spending on it right now. I mean obviously they’re spending a lot because they’ve created a new agency. And, you know, there’s still a lot of people who don’t think it was a very good idea.

I happen to think it’s a good idea. If it were run properly and if, if they had the right people and, and … because I do think that there were an awful lot of areas that were just not being well run in the government and too many disparate areas where nothing was coordinated, and I think if they can pull it together and coordinate all of these areas, I think that will be … make a big difference. And it’s going to take time. I mean … that’s not something that happens overnight. And that’s going to cost money, too. But I think if they can get it working and if it does work, it will be money well, well spent.

HEFFNER: Why do you think the judgment has been made and clearly, as you said about the visit of Tom Ridge to the Post, judgment was made not to build in-house facilities in terms of the advisory person you want. Why do you think there has been this failure, if that’s what it is … to focus enough on this question? Just because it’s so damn scary?

QUINN: No. I … you know, I frankly don’t know the answer to that question. Because I don’t understand it. I mean I would think that that would be the first person you’d want … is a leader in the chemical-biological community who would, you know, somebody who was a real spokesperson and who had a great deal of weight in that community.

I don’t understand why they haven’t focused on that. I can’t answer that question. I mean they just didn’t feel that it was necessary. And maybe it was … I don’t know. I mean money … I can’t believe that they didn’t want to pay the salary …

HEFFNER: No, no …I didn’t mean that in terms of money, I meant … in the whole …


HEFFNER: …picture whether enough was being invested.

QUINN: But I … you know … I think that, that when the next attack happens, it’s going to re-focus everybody’s mind on Homeland Security and everybody’s going to take it a lot more seriously than they do now.

HEFFNER: If we have minds left.

QUINN: [Laughter] Yes. We’ll, we’ll have minds left. But it’s, it’s … you know, I just think there are enough people who just don’t think that’s where our resources should be spent. People who just don’t think it’s as likely that we will have that kind of attack. You know, government is, is … runs at a very slow pace and bureaucracy is very frustrating and it’s just really hard to get things done. And I think that if you’re going to do Department of Homeland Security, you should do it as best you can and put as much money into it as you need and hire the people that you need who are going to be the best in the country.

HEFFNER: And you feel this hasn’t been done?

QUINN: Well, I think that they’re working on it.

HEFFNER: The question then is …

QUINN: But … I mean I don’t … I don’t mean to say that Tom Ridge is not a serious person. I think he is a serious person. Now I just don’t know what kind of standing he has … you know there’s a …

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

QUINN: Well, in terms of being close to the President, because access is everything. And, you know, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State are the two Cabinet members who really see the President and talk to the President and have the President’s ear. But one Cabinet member said to me the other day, you know, that we’re … the rest of us are “chopped liver”. I mean there’s a war going on in Iraq and that has the President’s entire attention right now and, and though you’d think Homeland Security would be a part of it, I just think that his attention is not on this issue as much as it is on the war issue.

HEFFNER: Not entirely, don’t forget the little matter of re-election.

QUINN: Yeah. Well, we’ll see. I mean I don’t know whether … I guess they just think that this is not an issue that is going to make much difference as I pointed out earlier, you don’t hear it talked a lot among the candidate. Though the President has to weigh … I mean I’m not even being cynical now, I’m just being realistic, the President has to weigh and decide what people want to hear about.

HEFFNER: This must, again, be one of those things that drives you bananas …

QUINN: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: …given your involvement in the subject.

QUINN: [Laughter] well, I mean after watching it for many, many, many years in Washington, it, it doesn’t drive me … nothing drives me bananas anymore. Some things upset me and I, and I really do feel that we could do a lot more in this area and I think we could do a lot more in all the big cities. I mean here we were with the Orange Alert and there were … what were the cities, New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Las Vegas … four cities that were really under sort of almost a lock-down because they thought that those were the cities that might be hit.

Then, you know, there’s another theory among a lot of the intelligence people, that they would go for some place in the heartland, you know, the Midwest, and so and I think those people are out there sort of saying “ho-hum, it’s not going to happen here and boy I’m sure glad I don’t’ live in New York or Washington.” And I, and I think that would be too bad if something happened in Boise [laughter].

HEFFNER: You know, we have less than a minute left, but I need to make a comment and that is, when you spoke before and in our other program about the economics of the situation and this is a matter where the people who have can find more protection, I wondered whether that’s true, whether when it really comes down to chemical-biological warfare that the fact that you can have the gas mask and have other protections is going to mean very much at all if most other people don’t.

QUINN: Well, of course, you’re right … because what’s going to happen is, as I said to one friend, “should we get a, a kayak an inflatable kayak and rush down to the river, either in New York or Washington and just get into the kayak.” And this friend of mine said, “well, somebody would steal it before you even got down there.”

And that’s the problem, that the “haves” are not going to have very long, anything for very long, because the “have nots” will take it away from them if there’s a panic situation. That’s why I think it’s the most important for everybody to be prepared.

HEFFNER: Sally Quinn that’s the point at which we end our program. Thank you so much for being with me. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.