Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 19, 2010

It’s a question of “if, not when” we ever see a mass casualty CBRN incident

Filed under: Biosecurity,Catastrophes,Chemical Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on October 19, 2010

Albert J. Mauroni is an analyst with twenty five years experience in chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological (CBRN) defense policy and program development.  He has written six books about chemical and biological warfare.

Mauroni recently wrote an article about how the US homeland security enterprise addresses the threat of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear terrorism.  He argues that our policy is flawed fundamentally.

Here are selected excerpts from his contrarian –  very readable and compelling — article (the full document is available here ).


Some History

Our current homeland security approach to CBRN terrorism seems to have its basis in the incidents of 9/11 and the U.S. anthrax attacks in October-November 2001. However, our history of homeland defense goes back to 1941 (at least); to understand from a policy perspective how the government ought to address domestic CBRN terrorism, we need to put it all in context.

… Initially, the federal government saw its role strictly as providing a response to the intentional use of military weapons against U.S. cities and noncombatants. First it was the fear of German and Japanese bombers and missiles hitting U.S. cities on the coast. Then it was the threat of Soviet bombers and missiles. But the congressional response was not to spend great deals of money on this threat. Over time, the state and local officials were not as concerned about the possibility of external attack as they were the power of Mother Nature. Congress, influenced by those state and local officials, decided it was more important for the federal government to respond to states and locals affected by natural disasters and accidents rather than external threats. That balance was rudely jarred after 9/11, and we have yet to re-establish a more balanced view.

What does “WMD” mean?

The term “WMD” was the word of the year in 2002, but quickly fell into abuse as a term of political rhetoric and comedic punch lines. It was originally developed in 1948 by the United Nations as an accepted arms control term to describe the nation-state use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.…

The military defines WMD as nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons that can cause a “high order of destruction.” I would add to this definition that the intentional use of these weapons needs to cause mass casualties….

The presence of mass casualties is a key aspect of the WMD incident, but “mass casualties” is an undefined and nebulous phrase. In general, people use the term to describe a situation in which there is one more casualty than the number of available hospital beds in the local area…. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) chose the number of 1,000 injured or dead people for the trigger for its Metropolitan Medical Response Forces.

I disagree with the FBI’s use of the Title 18 U.S. Code definition of WMD because of its deliberate lack of reference to the scale of the incident. To the Department of Justice (DoJ) lawyers, any amount of CBRN or explosives, no matter how small, constitutes a WMD. Even [inert] devices or hoaxes can have WMD aspects.

In my mind, the term “WMD” is only useful as an arms control term…..

…I’m not against consideration of high-yield explosives, directed energy lasers, or other weapons that could realistically cause mass casualties. Ricin and botolinum toxin, often used in small amounts for assassinations, are not WMD. Airplanes used to cause mass casualty events are not WMD. Pipebombs and grenades are not WMD.

What do you think about CBRNE?

I don’t like the term “CBRNE” because that’s an antiterrorism term, not a WMD term. The military police and emergency responders within the DOD antiterrorism community started using “CBRNE” in the late 1990s because of numerous terrorist incidents such as the bombing at Khobar Towers, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Aum Shinrikyo’s Tokyo subway incident. But the antiterrorism community really doesn’t worry about the “CBRN” as much as they do the “E.” When it comes to assigning resources and time to the most credible threats, the more probable threat of explosives wins over CBRN hazards every time.

Terrorists get their material and technology where they can, from the local economy. They don’t have the time, funds, or interests to get exotic. That’s what we see, over and over again. The [National Counter Terrorism Center] noted that, in 2008, there were approximately 11,800 terrorist attacks resulting in more than 54,000 deaths, injuries, and kidnappings. Nearly all were caused by armed assaults, bombings, suicide attacks, kidnappings, and other conventional forms of assault.


In 2003, DHS began developing its CBRN terrorism response efforts by basically copying the DOD’s CBRN defense concept. This included recommending the use of plastic sheets and duct tape for homes and businesses to provide “shelter in place” collective protection and the use of point detectors to identify lethal levels of chemical, biological, and radiological hazards.

There were two major problems with this approach. First, the threat of CBRN hazard exposure to people at home (or even businesses) was about near zero, and second, the low probability of a CBRN hazard being used on any one day during the year at any one particular site within the United States was practically zero.

It was not a sustainable strategy if one demanded eternal vigilance at all locations with the goal of eliminating all threats. And of course, the U.S. government wasn’t protecting all potential terrorist targets.

Homeland Security Planning Scenarios

The Homeland Security Planning Scenarios are ridiculously unrealistic in portraying the expected threats to the homeland. Of the fifteen scenarios, eleven are CBRN-focused, and not just typical CBRN hazards but significant quantities of military warfare agents such as anthrax, smallpox, sarin nerve agent, and mustard agent.

They are “worst-case” scenarios, which are good for leadership exercises where you want to encourage interagency communications or to identify whether policies or resources are a limiting factor, but they are lousy for making resourcing decisions.

Worst-case scenarios rely on movie-theater plots that maximize the threat only because that’s the best way to get a maximum number of senior leaders within multiple agencies at the federal level involved to play in a short, annual national exercise. The 10-kiloton nuclear scenario is particularly ridiculous….

Terrorists and WMD

I don’t believe in the popular assumption that terrorists are actively working with “rogue nations” to exploit WMD materials and technology. The evidence isn’t there. Nation states invest heavy amounts of people and funds to develop specific unconventional weapons, and if they were to give or sell them to terrorists, one of two things could happen – either the weapons would be traced back to them, or the weapons might get used someplace where the nation state regrets.

The basic approach used by terrorists and insurgents is to seek out and use low-risk, easily-acquired weapon systems. Any weapon that can be improvised using available and accessible materials is good; any weapon that can be bought on the open market and easily used is good. CBRN materials don’t fit that niche.

The generic terrorist threat is often referenced without any specific understanding of specific group motivations or activities. Al Qaeda has stated intentions to use CBRN hazards, but this has not led to the actual development of any specific capabilities. …. We’re blindly attacking the tools instead of the terrorists.

The reason why terrorists are interested in CBRN hazards is because so many senior [US] leaders keep vocalizing how afraid they are of this particular threat. Before 9/11, the interest was not as strong (and the senior leader rhetoric about “WMD threats” wasn’t, either).

While terrorists are interested in CBRN hazards, they can’t get the dangerous precursor materials, they don’t have any training in handling or dispersing these hazards, and they don’t understand the particular effects on their targets. So we see some scattered use of industrial chemicals, some production of ricin toxin from castor beans, a few grams of radioactive material stolen from a facility – not exactly mass casualty threats.

As terrorists attempt to develop more sophisticated weapons in an effort to create mass casualties, their machinations become more public and it actually becomes easier to catch them.

Chemical Weapons

Chemical terrorism has been downplayed recently, ironically because it doesn’t cause enough casualties for high-consequence scenarios. Chemical terrorism remains the most likely form of CBRN terrorism, if one looks at the relative ease of obtaining industrial chemicals from the economy and low threshold of training and equipment required.

Still, people focus on the nerve agents as the “likely” threat, not because they’re available, but because they’re the most lethal.

Actual cases show terrorists seeking available industrial chemicals rather than making nerve agents, with one exception. Aum Shinrikyo had millions of dollars, facilities, trained chemists, and years of practice to make its sarin nerve agent. Most terrorist groups lack those resources.

DHS and Chemical Weapons

I’m not a proponent of the DHS Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Standards, where the department looks to identify all chemical storage facilities and to make their owners assess the security of their chemicals. All this does is cause incentives to industry to move the chemicals somewhere else. Instead of focusing on the major producers, DHS diminishes its efforts by trying to cover tens of thousands of small facilities and anyone using a chemistry kit. It becomes a paperwork drill where no one addresses the really tough problems.

The railcar discussions are particularly amusing, in that there is so much concern about a hazmat derailment within a major city. So the answer is to divert hazardous materials around a city, right? There are two things wrong with that – the secondary rails are less well maintained, and so represent a greater safety risk. And legal issues with regulation of interstate rail transport get in the way.


Bioterrorism is the flavor of the year, thanks to a recently-released government report titled “World At Risk” by former senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent.  Hollywood and fiction novels have done their best to ensure we all believe that a contagious virus without any cure is being secretly developed in a government lab and will wipe out civilization as we know it….

One requires a large amount of biological warfare (BW) agent to successfully cause mass casualties, and these agents can’t be made in a bathtub. You can’t go to Wal-Mart stores to obtain dangerous biological assays or to Home Depot for equipment to grow biological material. Bruce Ivins was successful because he had a full laboratory suite and starter material available to him, plus decades of experience in handling anthrax.

There are at least a dozen top BW threats, but under Project Bioshield we have vaccines for only two of them. Maybe in another ten years, we’ll have a few more vaccines, but certainly not twelve. For the 270 cities in the United States with a population of more than 100,000, only thirty-odd cities have Project Biowatch detectors. It’s a very expensive project to sustain against a wide variety of potential threats. ….I already mentioned the lack of vaccines and medical countermeasures for biological agents. The challenge was, and continues to be, that Big Pharma has no incentive to get involved in researching these specialized medical countermeasures. It’s too expensive, it’s not profitable, and it could lead to lawsuits if the drugs are incorrectly used.

… [W]e’ll never get adequate coverage for the entire United States, or even a majority of the nation’s major cities, because it is too expensive to run 24/7 and to test all the samples in a lab. Even with the proposed Gen 3 biowatch detector, which doesn’t exist right now, DHS plans to roughly double its monitors to cover sixty cities. Using point detectors for national special security events makes sense. Biowatch doesn’t.

Radiological Weapons

Radiological terrorism gets people excited because, even though the nature of radiological hazards hasn’t changed in more than six decades, there’s something about radiation that spooks us. The term “dirty bombs” has a sinister sound. But of all the terrorist CBRN hazards, radiological devices (RDD) are certainly not WMD. We have never had an RDD incident to date, and yet so many people like to worry about the loose or available radiological isotopes that could be grabbed up by terrorists.

I’m very critical about the approach to addressing radiological terrorism. It’s no surprise that the easiest way to reduce our risk in this area is to secure all the radiological material that industry uses and to place it in one location that could be guarded. Instead, because of NIMBY politics, the decision was made to close down a $9 billion nuclear material repository and to maintain the status quo of storing nuclear material in “temporary” storage near more than 120 nuclear facilities across the nation.

The Nuke Threat

[L]et’s look at the real 800-pound gorilla in the room. Some people fear that al Qaeda is going to somehow obtain a nuke from Pakistan, disable the safety mechanisms, and transport it to a U.S. city. Some fear that al Qaeda will build a crude nuclear bomb, using technical expertise and material through the global economy. The scenario of a 10-kiloton nuclear blast is what causes people to “lose sleep,” allegedly. And yet, if you examine the facts, it’s not likely at all that this is a credible scenario.

[N]ations with nuclear technology or materials need to consider whether the bomb will be traced back to them, and where the bomb might be used. It might not be in the United States, it might be in a neighboring country.

The number of people who would need to be engaged to get/build a bomb and move it to the United States, let alone engineer a successful detonation, would make this a complex operation that would be visible to law enforcement and the intelligence community.

We have no compelling evidence that any nation has provided a terrorist group with chemical or biological weapons – why on earth would they provide a terrorist group with nuclear weapons? It doesn’t make sense.

The “high-altitude EMP blast” scenario is particularly outlandish, suggesting that a terrorist organization would be able to move a ballistic missile to the coast of the United States and set off a megaton nuke 200 miles over the country just to collapse the electronic infrastructure and turn America into a pre-industrial society. There are better odds that an asteroid the size of Texas might collide with a major city within the United States.

Bottom line, we’re already petrified that al Qaeda is going to nuke America, even lacking any evidence that it has one or could get a nuclear weapon. So why does al Qaeda need a nuclear bomb? It already has accomplished its purpose of terrifying the country. And yet, we see the unfolding of this massive “Global Nuclear Detection Architecture” that’s designed to ensure our politicians can sleep well at night. We could cite the statistics – the hundreds of ports, the thousands of miles of border, the “second line of defense” – and ask is this the most effective way to address the challenge of a terrorist rad/nuke incident?

The scope of the global architecture keeps growing. In addition to the major air and sea ports and border crossings, the DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office has proposed going after all the smaller air and sea ports that cater to private vessels. And then there’s the idea of populating the major cities and interstate roads between cities with radiological monitors. Is this a sustainable plan? Is it really effective, considering the limits of radiological detection technology? I would argue, no. The false alarms and cost of maintaining such a nation-wide system are prohibitive, considering the very low probability of occurrence and other options available to the national security community.

But what if?

Let’s assume that, worst case, a nuclear bomb is smuggled into a major U.S. city. Let’s not pick New York City, that’s been debated enough. But say a nuke goes off in Atlanta or Chicago or Seattle. Let’s assume that the terrorists had a functional bomb that yielded a 10-kiloton blast, not a crude device that resulted in a 1-2 kiloton fissile. Certainly thousands of Americans would die and a city would be irrevocably damaged. But would the United States stop, falter, collapse as a nation? No. A single nuclear terrorist event is not an existential threat to such a massive country. It can be managed, and given all the effort already in place to prevent such an incident, it’s not what ought to be keeping us up at night.

If the current US approach to CBRN homeland security policy is wrong, what should we be doing instead?

[We] need serious reviews of the policies that are in place and to use [a] … “risk-based” management approach to ensure that we are spending our funds wisely.

We continue to view WMD or CBRN hazards as the threat – that’s a myopic focus. We need to look at the process by which terrorists develop their tools and understand that it is by defeating the terrorists that we can stop the CBRN threat. When you take a realistic look at the threat and what terrorists can actually do – outside of a television show like 24 – it’s not a difficult thing. We can do this more smartly.

[We] need to [stop] the loose use of the term “WMD.” It only confuses the discussion and presents an unachievable goal that obstructs serious discussion.

We need to clearly separate the concepts of how militaries defend against NBC weapons and how emergency responders address terrorist CBRN hazards.

We should not act as if a terrorist group has the capability to do as much damage as a nation with an active WMD program.

The Homeland Security Planning Scenarios have to be changed to reflect realistic and probable threats, not “worse-case” scenarios. By using the scenarios as the basis for national-level exercises, we risk the danger of overestimating the actual need for unique and specialized resources that may never be employed within our lifetimes.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the majority of incidents requiring federal response to state and local emergency responders will be for natural disasters and industrial accidents rather than WMD.

It actually is a question of “if, not when” we ever see a CBRN terrorist incident that results in mass casualties. We need a sustainable, effective approach, which requires us to stop overhyping the threat. It’s not September 12, 2001, anymore. We need to realistically assess the challenge and all possible threats – natural and man-made – and calmly, rationally, develop a plan that doesn’t bankrupt the annual operating budget.

None of us have enough money to provide perfect protection for everyone throughout the year, and there are better things to spend money on….


The complete article, Homeland Insecurity: Thinking About CBRN Terrorism, is available at this link.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 19, 2010 @ 7:40 am

Very interesting post. Another suggestion has appeared in the past for the formula shorthand–BE-NICE–for Biological, Nuclear, Incendiary, Chemical, Explosives.

Recently, the so-called “HOPLEY REPORT” from 1948 on civil defense was made available on the FAS website. It is an amazing comprehensive piece that does inform US of our history very well on the complexities of science and civil defense.

The Civil Defense program under Public Law 920 of the 81st Congress ran from 1950 to 1994. Shortly after its end, due in part to fears arising over possible attacks during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act [Title XIV of the annual defense authorization] became law. Its premise was DOD competence at handling WMD and response to their utilization. This totally failed paradigm supports Albert Mauroni in his conclusions. The question is whether that is still the case as asserted by him.

First I agree that the planning guidance scenarios were designed to focus on terrorism and man-made incidents/events. Whether this focus for DHS for the rest of time in its initial phase and for FEMA was correct for the rest of time will be forever debated. The public dialectic of both DHS and FEMA is now all-hazards but of course neither organization is today organized for all-hazards impact resilience [a term I am adopting to cover preparedness, prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery].

If you examine the risks and hazards of WMD or CBRNE threats, you would have to say that the federal effort so far is quite limited and compartmented and unlikely to encompass appropriate governmental actions in any large-scale incident or event. The question then becomes has the effort so-far been adequate to deal with the most probably scenarios and level of catastrophe. I tend to come down on the side of Mauroni but others will differ.
I still see WMD as the leading problem for DHS but not necessarily FEMA. I would be happier if DHS and HHS were not so stove-piped internally and externally and just for good measure it is obvious that stovepipes in DOD definitely keep that organization from being all-hazards or even from having any effective interface with the civil sector.
By the way because of relatively new organizational units and past restrictions, I would have included Riots and Civil Disorders as one of the key planning scenarios. Also included would have been disruption of certain regulated entities, such as the energy grid, or nuclear reactors, research or power generating. But hey time will tell whether the continuing evolution of risk analysis will encompass these issues and sources of problems.
Interest post Chris. Hope other readers weigh in to the discussion.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 19, 2010 @ 7:49 am

I probably should have mentioned that there are serious errors in the DHS/FEMA document completed by a contractor listed at Footnote #1 of Mauroni’s article. Close examination of materials on my blog reveal that without controvention in my opinion. Others may differ.
I actually submitted my suggested corrections to DHS/FEMA when the document appeared. DHS has an Official Historian and she was also notified of my concerns.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

October 19, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

While Mauroni certainly has some interesting and helpful ideas concerning classification and terminology, correctly points out an over-reliance on detection, and helpfully challenges planning orthodoxy, he appears to not have given the topics of radiological and nuclear terrorism much thought:

“It’s no surprise that the easiest way to reduce our risk in this area is to secure all the radiological material that industry uses and to place it in one location that could be guarded.”
–While there are programs to make devices that utilize radiological sources harder to steal, it is unclear how tools in health care and other industries can be totally secure and when still in use placed in one location that could be guarded.

“The number of people who would need to be engaged to get/build a bomb and move it to the United States, let alone engineer a successful detonation, would make this a complex operation that would be visible to law enforcement and the intelligence community.”
–Of course it would be visible and thus preventable. Especially if one of the people involved was previously an informant for a U.S. law enforcement agency and his two wives informed authorities about his activities for a terrorist organization. Oh, wait…

“We have no compelling evidence that any nation has provided a terrorist group with chemical or biological weapons – why on earth would they provide a terrorist group with nuclear weapons? It doesn’t make sense.”
–This is a good argument for why if Iran gets a nuclear bomb it will not simply hand one over to Hezbollah or Hamas. Unfortunately, terrorists do not need state assistance to get a nuclear weapon.

“Bottom line, we’re already petrified that al Qaeda is going to nuke America, even lacking any evidence that it has one or could get a nuclear weapon. So why does al Qaeda need a nuclear bomb? It already has accomplished its purpose of terrifying the country.”
–That is assuming their purpose is to simply terrify the country and that they do not have other strategic goals in mind. A big assumption, in my opinion, and one lacking in evidence.

“A single nuclear terrorist event is not an existential threat to such a massive country. It can be managed, and given all the effort already in place to prevent such an incident, it’s not what ought to be keeping us up at night.”
–It won’t be an existential threat to the U.S., but the reaction here and around the world will be enormous. We invaded two countries after 9/11, what will we and others do after even a nuclear fizzle?

“When you take a realistic look at the threat and what terrorists can actually do”
–While it is the most unlikely of threats, and would be incredibly difficult to pull off, many people in and out of government have considered the effort needed and determined that terrorists can “actually do” a nuclear attack.

Comment by Al Mauroni

October 22, 2010 @ 8:48 am

Hi William: I appreciate your notes about the DHS history on civil defense and the Hopley report, it is my intent to organize a manuscript to better discuss this issue. My concern with BE-NICE and other similar acronyms is that it still does not clarify the differences between CBRNE incidents (which can be very small scale and more disruptive than destructive) and WMD events (which are usually based on massive use of military ordnance against cities). The casual use of these terms leads to bad policy development.

Arnold: the length of the article did not allow me to elaborate on the complexities of each threat – my intent was to outline the general nature of the debate and to suggest that DHS needs to re-evaluate its policies and approach to CBRN terrorism incidents. It is obviously a serious issue with significant consequences, but the question you have to ask is, is the government managing the risk across all hazards to ensure that the threats are addressed with the most efficient use of resources? I’m not sure they are.

Just food for thought.

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