THE United States is undertaking the most stringent preparations for possible terrorist attacks than at any time in history even as reports of suspicious activities are already surfacing. The curtain of protection is being drawn everywhere from Capitol Hill to corporate board rooms in a nation that has rarely had to confront terrorism within its borders.
More security guards now roam federal office buildings in Washington. The Coast Guard is patrolling harbors to prevent attacks on ships. Baggage checks have been beefed up at airports across the country. Officials from companies - including McDonnell Douglas Corporation, the big aircraft maker and defense contractor - are undergoing counterterrorism security briefings. The US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) plan to begin tracking down an estimated 3,000 Iraqi visitors in the US whose non-student visas have expired.
``With the exception of the 1984 Olympics, the precautions are unprecedented,'' says Dr. Sabi Shabtai, a Los Angeles-based counter-terrorism expert.
Some analysts say the chance of a major terrorist attack in the US is relatively remote. Most believe that if attacks are fomented by Middle Eastern or other terrorists, they will be against more accessible Western military and civilian targets overseas. Even so, authorities say the threat is real enough to demand vigilance.
``There is clearly concern - and it is with considerable justification,'' says Dr. Robert Kupperman, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
One reason an attack is less likely to be launched here is simply that the US is a long way from where the established terrorists groups are. To take out a nuclear power plant, airport terminal, or some other building would require sophisticated capability - something easier done with a support network in place.
At the same time, an assault carried out at the behest or with the blessing of Baghdad would galvanize public opinion against Iraq at a time when Americans are still deeply divided on the idea of war - and, if war had already broken out, could buttress resolve to see it through.
``An attack in this country could be counterproductive to Saddam Hussein,'' says Bruce Hoffman, associate director of the RAND Corporation's International Security and Defense Strategy Program.
Still, no one dismisses the possibility of a domestic assault. Mr. Hoffman, for one, believes that any violence committed here is likely to be the act of an aggrieved individual rather than a state-sponsored spectacular.
``Individual acts are the most difficult to predict and protect against,'' says Dr. Shabtai.
Which raises the question of just how prepared the US is for an assault. Shabtai says ``we are much better prepared in some areas than in others.'' Law enforcement authorities caution against alarm.
``We do have lots of experience in this kind of thing,'' says Capt. Bernard Wilson of the Los Angeles International Airport police.
Still, some think the US is vulnerable. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah notes that much of the refined oil products transported in the US pass through one pipeline system. He points out that the protection of water, electricity, natural gas, and nuclear power plants falls to private companies, ``some of which take the threat more seriously than others.''
Citing testimony from the FBI that terrorist groups have tried (unsuccessfully) to target some of these facilities in the past, Mr. Hatch, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, urges three actions: a national assessment of the vulnerability of ``high-technology infrastructure''; the establishment of uniform anti-terrorist standards for the facilities; the stockpiling of replacement parts.
The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which operates the Alaska pipeline, Tuesday announced security enhancements, including increased ground and air surveillance. Alyeska says there is no specific threat, but last month the FBI was investigating a reported threat by Saddam Hussein to pay for having the pipeline blown up.
Already the FBI says it has foiled at least five attempted terrorist attacks since Iraq invaded Kuwait. Now the FBI is interviewing Arab-Americans, asking what they may have heard about terrorist activity.
The questioning, however, is drawing accusations of harassment from leaders in the Arab community, and similar charges are being leveled against the INS which last week began to photograph and fingerprint people entering the US on Iraqi or Kuwaiti passports.
In Los Angeles, a multi-agency terrorism task force created in the wake of the 1984 Olympics is stepping up intelligence gathering and planning.
``We are not overly concerned but we are concerned,'' says Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates.