Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 29, 2005

An odd post at Early Warning

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Christian Beckner on December 29, 2005

I generally like William Arkin’s Early Warning blog at Washingtonpost.com, but his latest post goes off the deep end. He writes:

Let’s hope as well that 2006 isn’t another year where weapons of mass destruction destroy America. From the continuing house of pain in Iraq to hurricane Katrina to the end of the year news that the Department of Energy secretly sniffed around mosques for radioaction, the government is so enamored of exotic threats from nuclear and biological weapons that it can barely see straight. In the case of Katrina, it couldn’t fulfill its fundamental duties….

Sure al Qaeda is “interested” in acquiring WMD; PROOF WAS FOUND IN AFGHANISTAN, the nuclear crazies say. And then there are all the loose nukes in Russia and the missing nuclear materials and the suitcase nuclear bombs. I wonder whether there is any veracity to the presumption of any kind of a serious terrorist WMD threat.

Huh? Nuclear and biological weapons are “exotic threats”? The terrorist WMD threat isn’t “serious”? Call me a “nuclear crazy” if you must, but for my money, nuclear and biological threats are practically the whole ballgame in homeland security and counterterrorism, because the potential consequences of attack are so high. If these are exotic threats, then what does he think the real threats are?

And what did efforts to protect the United States against WMD-related threats have to do with the response failures of Hurricane Katrina? If anything, the response to Katrina tells me that the US government needs to be doing MORE to prepare to respond to WMD-related attacks, in concert with preparedness for natural disasters.

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Comment by J.

January 3, 2006 @ 4:09 pm

I’m catching up on your blogposts, but I will tell you that I agree with Arkin. He’s saying that nuke/bio threats are exotic from the standpoint that they are not, nor will they be, standard tools of the terrorist set. The real threat to America comes from drug lords, crime families, religious cults, militias, and natural disasters. Do the math, what’s the probability that you’ll be in a CBRN incident next year as opposed to being hit by a car/mugged/sickened by the flu/in a natural disaster.

Responding to terrorist incidents is very similar to responding to natural disasters, you of all people ought to understand the “all-hazards” approach being pushed by emergency responders. You may not know that FEMA originally was oriented primarily to post-nuclear attack scenarios, until the states (and Congress) started yelling that the natural disasters – which occur every year, as opposed to nuke/bio attacks – needed a coordinated federal response. So the FEMA mission evolved to being more focused on the natural disasters than on the terrorist side, until 1995 and Aum Shinrikyo hit Tokyo’s subway.

Pouring billions into preparing for an event that may never happen (because terrorists historically prefer simple explosives and guns to CB agents) doesn’t make sense. It even makes less sense to be so damn preoccupied on the subject, as this administration is, and completely miss the point that you’ve shortchanged or abandoned all the response options for natural disease outbreaks and natural disaster preparedness.


Comment by Christian Beckner

January 3, 2006 @ 4:34 pm

Thanks for your comment. I freely admit that one of my biases is in favor of preparing for the low-probability, high-consequence scenarios such as nuclear terrorism and high-consequence bioterror scenarios. Those are the risks that I personally worry about, and I’m not so certain that these are ‘lesser risks’ from an actuarial standpoint to our nation, or even if they are, that the government should act as such. This is based in part because of many meeting and hallway conversations over the past few years where very respected people expressed their heightened sense of the probability of these threats, and in part because the potential secondary consequences, in terms of economic impact and political destabilization are so great.


Comment by J.

January 3, 2006 @ 5:22 pm

If you go through my web site’s HLS entries, you’ll see my side of the story. I don’t disagree that we need to be educated and be prepared to respond to terrorist CBRN incidents (I prefer CBRN to WMD). After all, I work in this field. But I think there is a tendancy for politicians to soapbox on this issue and then do little to nothing serious to develop the capability. This time, Bush goes overboard with all the Biodefense initiatives (BioShield, BioWatch, BioSense, etc). I think a more balanced approach, focusing on better national medical surveillance and prompt hospital care, is better than stockpiles of vaccines for a few major BW agents (again, based on the probability rather than overall impact). If BW happens, we’ll get smoked, but it’s not going to collapse the nation. I’m betting on small-scale releases that impact a portion of the population (100s) but not a major (1000s) portion. That’s what past history suggests. If you really dig into those expert’s opinions, many merely are postulating that the advance of technology plus global economy equals greater terrorist CBRN risk. That is, they aren’t basing it on any particular terrorist group, intelligence, or terrorist strategies. So where’s the beef?

I always forget to say, better pre-emption is always a key too. Get the terrorists before they make and release the CBRN hazards, which may mean more Patriot-law acts (but with better oversight and some transparency).

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Report: Plot to attack NYC subway called off in 2002

June 18, 2006 @ 9:25 pm

[…] Assuming this story is accurate, it confirms what I’ve believed (and many other analysts have argued) for a while: that the core of al-Qaeda is focused on catastrophic attacks on the United States – probably using nuclear or biological weapons – and everything other type of attack is secondary from their perspective (or detrimental, to the extent that it would lead to increased protection and vigilance). This story offers a strong counterpoint to those who have argued that the WMD threat is overhyped, or that we aren’t doing enough to protect “soft” targets. […]

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