Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 4, 2008

Domestic Anti-“Dirty Bomb” Effort Covered in the Washington Post

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats,State and Local HLS — by Jonah Czerwinski on February 4, 2008

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 Post’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 City’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.

I’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 “loose nukes” and poorly guarded nuclear material from being stolen by terrorists or black marketeers, STC works with hospitals that – for medical procedures – 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 Ferguson’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 Levi’s new book On Nuclear Terrorism. (NB: I still have to read Michael’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.

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Comment by Arnold

February 4, 2008 @ 2:08 am

Could you please provide a citation or reference to a DHS document or even newspaper report for this (and in your post the following paragraph re Nunn-Lugar) statement:
“STC also works to secure the sources of domestically available radiological material that could be misappropriated for use in a dirty bomb.”

I have not seen this claim for STC before–only its detection mission. In fact, the only programs I know of that deal with securing domestic radiological sources are DOE and NRC related.

Thanks in advance.

Comment by Jonah Czerwinski

February 4, 2008 @ 6:35 am

Arnold —

Thanks for the question. Unfortunately I do not have a media source for the fact that STC also works to secure source material. I learned this as part of briefings to an advisory group of the DNDO. I’ll see if I can post some material on just STC that explains this in a non-FOUO format.


Comment by William R. Cumming

February 6, 2008 @ 2:15 am

I believe this effort by DNDO is THE critical WMD effort by DHS. Despite active non-cooperation by DOE and its frustration at the mere existence of DNDO without the formation of DNDO this effort, which may fail, would not have stood a chance. DNDO has done the most with the least of any DHS component. Anti-proliferation efforts are also very very important and it would be wise to track a history of funding and performance of Nunn-Lugar-Domencii since enactment of the WMD Act as Title XIV of the FY 97 DOD authorization and appropriation. The Nuclear Threat Initiative should be commended for its short and long term efforts to keep this on the US agenda.

Comment by Brigitte Hoy

August 6, 2010 @ 1:29 am

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