The Department of Homeland Security program to partner with major cities in an effort to defend against the use of dirty bombs and covert nuclear attacks, called Securing the Cities, received rare coverage in the press yesterday. The Washington Postâ€™s Spencer Hsu was invited to New York City by Richard Falkenrath, NYPD’s deputy commissioner for counterterrorism. You may recall Falkenrath as the Harvard instructor and then White House staffer who joined up after 9/11 with the Office of Homeland Security. Falkenrath today occupies a perch unlike any other and was probably interested in spreading the word about the Cityâ€™s efforts to defend against rad/nuc and bio threats. (Spencer ran an earlier story on anti-bioterrorism, too.)
The Securing the Cities Initiative (STC) is operated by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office with a budget of about $40 million this year. Supporters of the program suggest that it makes straight forward sense that we invest in technology and techniques that will help avert an attack on a major city with something as deadly and disruptive as a dirty bomb. Critics argue that efforts like STC throw bad money and bad money in a futile effort to defend against a terrorist tactic that should be defeated far away from any U.S. city, if it can be defended against at all.
Iâ€™m cited in the story as a member of the former group because I believe that the U.S. is uniquely equipped with the innovation and budget to make significant progress in defeating the threat of dirty bombs and covert nuclear attacks. I do not believe that domestic defense should be pursued at the expense of vigorous nonproliferation efforts that should reduce the likelihood of an attack overall. The two efforts are equal parts of a comprehensive approach.
And STC is more than an effort to design and deploy detectors throughout New York City. In addition to improved training and information sharing for state and local authorities, STC also works to secure the sources of domestically available radiological material that could be misappropriated for use in a dirty bomb.
Think of STC as the Nunn-Lugar aspect the DNDO mission. In the same way that such Cooperative Threat Reduction programs endeavor to work with Russian nuclear facilities to keep â€œloose nukesâ€ and poorly guarded nuclear material from being stolen by terrorists or black marketeers, STC works with hospitals that â€“ for medical procedures â€“ routinely use Cesium-137 or Strontium 90, both potentially deadly isotopes, to enhance their stewardship and protective measures to secure these dangerous sources.
We covered this program last year in a post that includes supporting material. This post also speaks to the issue. For further reading, consider checking Charles Fergusonâ€™s report, “Preventing Catastrophic Nuclear Terrorism“, or his article in Foreign Affairs, entitled The “Four Faces of Nuclear Terror and the Need for a Prioritized Response,” in addition to Michael Leviâ€™s new book On Nuclear Terrorism. (NB: I still have to read Michaelâ€™s new book, but I sure look fwd to it.) My friend Jeffrey Lewis runs the best blog on the overseas aspects of this issue.