In his tidy, tall-ceilinged office just off a cavernous marbled hallway at the National Security Council, Richard Clarke utters what sounds like bureaucratic blasphemy.
"I would be delighted three or four years from now to say we've wasted money," he says with a grin, dropping the reserve that reflects a long career in the arcane innards of Washington's security apparatus.
The gravity quickly returns: "I'd much rather have that happen than have to explain to the Congress and the American people why we weren't ready and why we let so many Americans die. Given the choice, I'd rather be blamed for doing too much."
Mr. Clarke's attitude is understandable. Preventing - or at least minimizing - mass murder has been his job since May, when President Clinton named him to the new post of coordinating federal efforts to protect the United States from terrorism, especially involving chemical or biological attacks.
He is also charged with developing by 2000 a plan to defend from cyber-attacks the computer networks that run key government operations and US banking, telecommunications, and utility systems.
The creation of the post of national coordinator for security, infrastructure and counterterrorism reflects an intensification of Mr. Clinton's efforts to combat what he considers some of the gravest threats of the coming century. Indeed, many experts say a chemical or biological attack is an ominous possibility.
Growing federal effort
But Clarke's appointment is also a recognition by Clinton of the need to get a better managerial grip on what has grown since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing into the contemporary equivalent of the nuclear-war preparations in the early days of the US-Soviet rivalry.
"We have a lot of capabilities in this government," says Clarke. "But we are not very good at identifying where it all is and bringing it together in a coherent way to solve a particular problem."
The deepening concern over terrorism and cyber-attacks is rooted in the growth of American military superiority and availability of lethal technologies and know-how.
Outgunned in a conventional fight, experts think foes may use "asymmetrical" means to hit the US, such as unleashing deadly microbes in cities or disrupting telecommunications networks used by the Pentagon or Wall Street.
"This is the type of threat that requires multiple agencies of the US government to work together," says Clarke in an interview in the Old Executive Office Building, a Gothic edifice next to the White House.
And while terrorists - foreign and domestic - have shown little propensity to use chemical or biological weapons, Clarke recalls with dread the scenes of Tokyo residents fleeing the subway after Aum Shin Rikyo's sarin gas attacks 1995.
"It was the first time that any terrorist attack had occurred against a large-scale urban population, an innocent population, using chemical weapons. And we know they attempted to use biological weapons as well," he says. "We ... have to have capabilities to do decontamination and emergency medical treatment should something like [this] occur in this country."
Surrounded by photos of his boss, Clarke is circumspect about his rsum. Saying he has worked in the Pentagon, the State Department, and the intelligence community, he bills himself as a "national security manager" who since 1992 has coordinated inter-agency teams that, among other crises, dealt with the US-led peace missions in Haiti and Somalia.
Lacking a budget, a large staff, and the Cabinet-level power that the "drug czar," Gen. Barry McCaffery, wields, Clarke will need all of his bureaucratic skills, connections, and experience in his new job.
Some 40 US agencies and offices are now involved in Clinton's antiterrorism efforts, from the CIA and Centers for Disease Control to the Department of Agriculture.
Since 1995, annual federal antiterrorism spending has climbed from some $5 billion to almost $7 billion, a record.
A storehouse of antidotes
Earlier this month, on Clarke's recommendation, Clinton asked Congress for $294 million more, including $94 million to create a national stockpile of antidotes and antibiotics to treat victims of chemical or biological terrorism.
The efforts are not confined to the federal level. The US Army has begun a program to train by 2003 first-response teams of medical, law-enforcement, and disaster-relief personnel in 120 metropolitan areas to detect and contain chemical and biological attacks. They will also be supplied equipment such as protective suits.
The Army is also creating 10 National Guard and Reserve teams around the nation to help handle the aftermath of terrorist attacks.
The growth in all of these efforts has naturally raised concerns about inefficiencies and duplication.
Clarke, however, defends the Clinton administration's efforts as "extraordinary." But he acknowledges deficiencies in some critical areas, including a lack of key equipment on the local level needed to deal with chemical or biological terrorism.
While most states and cities can cope with disasters and the kind of fuel-oil and fertilizer bomb that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City, "what we don't have is the ability to handle mass casualties created by either a chemical weapon or a biological weapon," Clarke says.
Furthermore, he agrees that state and local public-health systems have seen dangerous neglect in recent years and must be rebuilt.
"We've let the public-health systems in the states atrophy," says Clarke. "So we don't have the connections between the public-health departments and the emergency rooms and the HMOs. We don't have the laboratory capabilities at the state level."
Clinton intends to address these shortfalls in the coming years, says Clarke.
Asked if such efforts can eliminate the terrorist threat, he replies: "No one can give you a 100 percent guarantee that something cannot happen. What I want to do is, in the areas where our defenses are not as high as they could be, get them as high as they could reasonably be expected to be."