Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 4, 2008

WMD Commission Reports Out

The WMD Commission released today its public report to the President and Congress. Commissioners briefed President Bush and this afternoon briefed Vice President-elect Biden and Secretary-designate of Homeland Security Napolitano before they hosted a conference call with a few bloggers to discuss their new report.

The WMD threat is dynamic, as are our abilities to defend against it or defeat it. However, the threat is evolving in ways that open new vulnerabilities or further expose existing ones. The challenge, Commissioners told us, is to better direct today’s efforts with more coordination from the White House and to focus new resources on those worsening vulnerabilities. It is the Commission’s view that nuclear and bioterrorism represent the most pressing of these vulnerabilities. There’s a noticeable demotion of chemical and high explosives in the WMD threat embraced by the report.

The Commission, mandated by Congress, is a follow-on to the 9/11 Commission. And this Commission’s recommendations are just as sweeping. The WMD Commission urges such steps as:

• Undertake a series of mutually reinforcing domestic measures to prevent bioterrorism

• Undertake a series of mutually reinforcing measures at the international level to prevent biological weapons proliferation and terrorism.

• Work internationally toward strengthening the nonproliferation regime, reaffirming the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.

• Undertake a comprehensive review of cooperative nuclear security programs, and develop a global strategy that accounts for the worldwide expansion of the threat and the restructuring of our relationship with Russia from that of donor and recipient to a cooperative partnership.

• Stop the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs.

• Work with the Russian government on initiatives to jointly reduce the danger of the use of nuclear and biological weapons.

• Reform, reorganize, and consolidate the NSC and HSC structures.

• Congress should reform its oversight both structurally and substantively to better address intelligence, homeland security, and other national security programs.

• Accelerate integration of effort among the counterproliferation, counterterrorism, and law enforcement communities to address WMD proliferation and terrorism issues.

In the post-9/11 Commission era, such as it is, all Commissions and task forces deal with a new high-water mark in terms of publicity sought and impact measured. Parts of the WMD Commission report are written with this in mind (not least of which is the report’s title). As a result, vagueness or hyperbole clouds the message on some serious points. For example:

“This time we do know. We know the threat we face. We know that our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing. And we know what we must do to counter the risk.”

We’ve spent about $500B on homeland security alone since 9/11. Is this investment failing to keep even a bad situation from getting worse?

Impose “a range of penalties for [Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty] violations and withdrawal from the NPT that shift the burden of proof to the state under review for noncompliance.”

Does this mean that a nation accused of proliferating nuclear weapons is guilty until proven innocent?

The Commission strongly endorses the creation of a senior White House advisor whose sole responsibility is to serve as the President’s advocate and overseer of the policy nexus between WMD proliferation and terrorism. The position of senior advisor could readily be placed within the National Security Council structure. Alternatively, such an advisor could be placed within the office of the Vice President or made the head of a separate White House office.

The last time the Vice President’s office was in charge of assessing the risk of a nexus between terrorism and WMD…well, you get the point.

Let’s be clear: The Commission doesn’t mean to assert that we have near nothing to show for the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on homeland security. (Although Commission co-chair Bob Graham did state in the interview that we are “less safe today than we were.”)

And the Commission probably doesn’t endorse converting the NPT regime into a gotcha game of guilt and suspicion. Nor does the Commission really believe that the Office of the Vice President needs to serve a role like it did between 9/11 and the Iraq war.

In fact, the Commission actually stands for several initiatives and investments already on the table or already underway. Their recommendations make sense because, in a way, they’ve been made before and we already accept them. Hopefully, they’ll get the influx of Presidential prerogative these recommendations deserve.

Also check in on Armchair Generalist for more reflection on this report. Jason was one of the other bloggers on the call.

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Comment by Peter J. Brown

December 4, 2008 @ 8:58 am

While the Commission attempts to further the cause of biodefense, these comments made below by Naval Postgraduate School National Security Affairs Assistant Professor Anne L. Clunan. need to be considered carefully. They represent her assessment of the “lessons learned” in preparing the new book which she co-edited, “Terrorism, War, or Disease? Unraveling the Use of Biological Weapons” — and she made them weeks prior to the release of the Commission’s report.

“The possibility of an attack using biological weapons is one of the biggest threats to U.S. and global security, and states’ defense and deterrence policies are based on the assumption that the perpetrator can be quickly and reliably identified,” she said. “But the enduring lesson from our research is that identification, characterization and attribution of bioweapon use are all very hard to do in a scientifically and legally credible manner. There’s rarely a smoking gun. Even when there is, as was the case with the U.S. anthrax attacks, and even with increasingly sophisticated intelligence and scientific and forensic capabilities, it can be very hard to get an actual sample of the suspected or alleged biological agent. And even if you do, it’s extremely difficult to trace it back to its source – to determine what state, group or individual is to blame – which makes any timely, accurately targeted state response highly problematic.

“The bottom line for policymakers is to favor and focus on consequence mitigation – on measures to prevent, resist and withstand the impact of a bio attack – and to strengthen existing laws and norms against the development and use of biological and toxin weapons,” Clunan stressed. “Deterrence by retaliation, even if you can identify the perpetrator within any reasonable period of time, is politically controversial and risky and isn’t as effective as preventive deterrence by denial – preventing significant consequences of an attack. Instead of deterring a potential attacker by the threat of physical punishment, the best defense is to have a robust public health and first responder system in place to protect your population from harm, which discourages attacks, and if one comes, significantly mitigates the health effects and any public panic.

“Other key lessons from the case studies and analyses are that robust national and transnational networking, information exchange, standard setting and collaboration among first responders, health workers, the biotech industry, academics and nonproliferation, intelligence and law enforcement officials is critical for successful mitigation and attribution,” Clunan concluded. ‘Scientific and legal standards of evidence are needed to withstand scrutiny in court and independent scientific and international review, yet the evidentiary requirements and priorities for law enforcement and scientific investigation are often in conflict with political leaders’ desire for rapid action. We also need to improve international laws and norms against biological warfare, as this can increase the costs to both states and terrorists considering its use when such use is considered inhumane or taboo. We also need to develop international standards for monitoring the development, movement and use of agents with the potential for warfare use.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 4, 2008 @ 9:32 am

Peter Brown’s comments above give helpful focus to the report. Again a Commission implementing a Congressiona, not a Presidential mandate, fails to break down its analysis and recommendations into those that could be accomplished administratively and those that require legislation. Specifics, specifics, specifics just as in real estate location location, location (maybe of financing?). In any event the report is a contribution to the literature but it does seem that establishing a baseline approach, such as measuring the accomplishments or failure of the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act (Title XIV of 1996 DOD Authorization Act) and progress under the Bioterrorism Preparendness and Response Act of 2002 might have indicated where we have been and where we are going. Just as Incident Command was developed to make sure that fistfights between Police Chiefs and Fire Chiefs did not break out over who was in charge at local disaster sites, we now face the enormous stovepipe of bioterrorism preparedness and response as opposed to the structure of the Emergency Management community or the police or fire service tie in on EM and now instead of police or fire chiefs likely to have fistfights between medical personnel claiming to have the correct answer and approach. Bureacracies are not designed to promote individual genius, nor are political arrangements. Thus the crucial WMD issue is how scientific, technical (including legal) information is incorporated in a form and system useful to the decision makers whatever their background. The British have long been convinced that bioterrorism is the leading threat from terrorists for many reasons, and even now have formal evacuation plans for all of the London Metro area. Wish we were there organizationally also. The Fire Service neatly avoided dealing with Civil Defense issues because they were concerned about radiation effects and contamination (largely unseen, no smell, and often delayed effects). Thus, the classic nuclear/radiological attack stovepipe and now that of bioterror. I may be wrong but I thought a statutory mandate for a WMD CZAR in the White House already existed, although the position went unfilled by President Bush. Presiden-Elect Obama announced yesterday he would fill that position. I guess he intends to observe at least some statutory mandates. Further analysis, and hopefully further accomplishment awaits from those who read the report and are in positon to act on its recommendations. By the way the screwy title of the Commission may be part of its problem. John Deutch in 1999 led a much more organized report on WMD proliferation.

Comment by Jonah Czerwinski

December 4, 2008 @ 11:40 am

WRC said…
“I may be wrong but I thought a statutory mandate for a WMD CZAR in the White House already existed, although the position went unfilled by President Bush. President-Elect Obama announced yesterday he would fill that position. I guess he intends to observe at least some statutory mandates.”

The legislation that enacted the WMD Commission also created this White House position. The problem, according to the Commissioners, is that the post is President Appointed/Senate confirmed (PAS). Therefore, whoever takes that job can be called to testify before Congress. The Commission believes that such a caveat prohibits the President from appointing someone who will be effective at the job because that advisor will not be privy to anything the White House would like to preserve under executive privilege. The Commission’s recommendation suggests, among other things, that this post not be Senate confirmed in order to avoid this stalemate.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 4, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

Thanks Jonah for the info! The theory that White House personnel should NOT be allowed to testify so as to void claims of Executive Priviledge was neatly sidestepped by Condi Rice before the 9/11 Commission. I guess WMD issues are not as important before the incident or event as 9/11 was after the event and at least trying to find out how it happpened. Simplying classifying appropriately information would avoid disclosure but as we all know the National Security STATE and the Homeland Security STATE is build on making sure that waste, fraud, abuse, and doubtful policy making based on sketchy intel and administrative record is the way the US government now operates. This whole secrecy arena really is not about deliberative process because it seems to me that standup policy makers don’t mind if well after the fact their position is disclosed, or that’s right they wish to wait for their book contracts to be signed first. Out of curiousity, who in the White House besides the President and VP have original classification authority not just derivative classification authority? OADR?

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 4, 2008 @ 2:25 pm


Original classification authority in the executive office of the president is held by:

The Vice President
The Chief of Staff to the President
The Director, Office of Management and Budget
The Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
The Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy
The Chairman, President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board

The United States Trade Representative
The Chairman, Council of Economic Advisers
The Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy


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