Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 17, 2011

The High Priesthood of WMD Analysts

Filed under: WMD — by Alan Wolfe on July 17, 2011

I was attracted to this recent Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article that discussed the establishment of a Master of Science in Strategic Studies in Weapons of Mass Destruction at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. This course, established in the Department of Criminology, will teach Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, but not anyone else, at least at the moment.

With help from government threat analysts and federal law enforcement, IUP criminologist Dennis Giever created the Master of Science in Strategic Studies in Weapons of Mass Destruction. The 30-credit, multi-year course focuses on worst-case scenarios: radiological “dirty” bombs, power grid disruptions, crippling biological attacks on food and water supplies.

“It’s not going to be open enrollment (or) traditional students,” Giever said. “You worry about whether you might be teaching the wrong person this stuff.”

At first, the FBI will select students from within its ranks, though Giever wants to open it to other law enforcement agencies. Rather than traditional tuition, agencies will contract with the school, paying about $300,000 a year for groups of 15 to 20 full-time students, according to documents submitted to the board of governors of the State System of Higher Education.

Now on one hand, I think it’s great that a public university would have the interest in developing a program of study about WMD. It’s difficult to evaluate the goodness of such an effort without seeing the curricula or reference material, but one can only encourage the desire to educate any group about this topic. And if I were offered $300,000 a year to teach a small number of students about WMDs, oh, I’d have to jump at that opportunity.

On the other hand, I have to wonder about the appropriateness and sustainability of establishing a master’s program instead of a few courses that might be inserted into a criminology or a national security studies program.

It’s my observation that the U.S. government has this tendency to segregate WMD issues away from the general mainstream of homeland security and national security agendas. Because of the unconventional nature of the weapons involved (nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons) and the technical nature of the response to any use of these weapons, it’s as if the traditional homeland security/national security professional doesn’t want to address them. These are “special” topics that only the High Anointed can understand and address. In no small part, one can see this in the discussion about nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism.

We see arms control experts and people who design nuclear weapons talking about the threat of nuclear war instead of those military officers and government civilians who deal with conventional warfare issues every day. We hear from nuclear physicists and (again) the arms control experts about the threat of nuclear terrorism rather than those people responsible for combating terrorism every day. Well, that’s not entirely true. Every now and then you hear from military leaders and counter-terrorism directors about the “deadly threat” of WMD, but it’s largely relegated to rhetoric for speeches. The discussion and agenda is controlled by the High Priesthood of WMD.

This is not a good thing.

We do need to discuss the possible (if not improbable) military use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons on future battlefields, if only to understand the potential outcome of state conflicts. We do need to discuss the possible (if not improbable) terrorist use of chemical, biological, or radiological hazards, if only to understand how local and state first responders can avoid being overwhelmed and unprepared by such an event.

But the key is context.

How we address “WMD” in a domestic setting is quite different than how we address “WMD” on a battlefield, but the key is how we integrate the response to that threat within the context of homeland defense/civil support and major combat operations. It’s not to say, “oh, hey, there’s a unique threat, call Sam the CBRN guy to tell us what to do.”

We probably don’t need a Master of Science program of study on WMD. We certainly should not be overly concerned about “teaching the wrong person this stuff.” The information is out there. We do need every college or university offering a national security or homeland security program to include a few mandatory courses (not electives) on how their community addresses the threat of WMD. Understanding that it’s just another hazard within the context of a larger discipline is more important than controlling information (that cannot be controlled anyway).

But I’m really disappointed with the professor’s closing comments.

The goal of the degree program, Giever said, is obscurity. The best plan results in nothing happening.

How ridiculous. The goal of education is to inform, to enlighten, to spread knowledge. Obscurity only limits our ability to understand, especially about this issue. As Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.” No amount of education will prevent states from developing nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, or prevent terrorists from considering the use of chemical, biological or radiological hazards. But maybe we can, through some continuing education, reduce the hype and rhetoric around “WMDs” and actually bring some sanity into the discussion.


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Comment by DCGomez

July 17, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

I couldn’t agree more. As an FBI Executive Manager who daily deals with WMD issues, I understand the need for a level of secrecy in the training of LE in WMD issues. But a Master’s In Strategic Studies should not be training but rather education and should emphasize policy issues not technical issues.

I know that WMD exists; I know (generally) how a nuclear or radiological device would work; I do not need to have Secret or Top Secret technical details to assist in the formulation of policy or practices to address Homeland Security. Homeland Security is about the coordinated collaborative effort of multi-agencies, both public and private, to ensure public safety. If we limit the collective knowledge regarding WMD “POLICY” to only a select few within the Federal law enforcement community we are abrogating our responsibility to the general public.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 17, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

Great post and I agree with almost everything.

I think I might have physically smirked when I read that “You worry about whether you might be teaching the wrong person this stuff.” You’re almost sure to be right that anything on their curriculum is already available open source–and likely bits and pieces already taught in classes across this country.

I also think your point about teaching a wider audience about these additional hazards is spot on.

Yet I was curious that twice you omitted nuclear from the list of hazards terrorists might consider while including it for states.

While an unlikely threat, I think that nuclear physicists talk about the threat because those that understand how to make a bomb understand that a non-state group could make a crude (meaning it ain’t designed to fit on top of a missile) but working nuclear bomb if they had the right fissile material. Policy analysts that look at the security of fissile material worldwide and the known attempts at smuggling it understand that it is possible, if not easy, to get such material. And intelligence professionals who have investigated the issue believe that groups have had and may continue to seek such a capability (and could deliver such a device if they acquire one).

Comment by Alan Wolfe

July 17, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

Hi Arnold.

No, terrorist nuclear weapons are an object of fiction. Nuclear physists talk about the threat because they can describe the effects of nuclear weapons, not because they have ANY understanding about nuclear security controls, the availability of highly-enriched nuclear material, or the large number of people who would have to be involved to carry out such an attempt.

The policy analysts look at it because the decision makers are scared that it just might happen on their watch, so it’s good to write reports about it, just as long as they don’t have to spend too much money on it. It’s easy to get radiological material for dirty bombs, not easy at all to get fissile material. The intel community will never rule it out because they’re petrified about being wrong – again – or that (again) decision makers will twist their words.

Read Brian Jenkin’s “Will the Terrorists Go Nuclear?” if you really want a good understanding about the policy aspects of this issue. Everyone else are scare-mongers. We’re never going to see a nuclear terrorist event in our lives. So instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on expensive radiological detectors that don’t work good enough (DHS’s DNDO, for example – http://wapo.st/qgux7s), we ought to be spending that money on better intel collection for the fusion centers on terrorists using very available guns, explosives, and knives every day.

Comment by Policy Issues and Education

July 18, 2011 @ 5:40 am

For the most part, I concur with all of you and (we) thank you Alan for this post. DCGomez and so many others who dedicate their professional and personal time to protect us here on Main Street USA each and every day. We have so much to be thankful for as so many seek our demise.

When it comes to educating our first responders, those in the front line daily and those at the executive management level especially, a firm and established policy planning readiness is a prerequisite and while I am doomsday – pessimist about our economy and the ineptness and self-serving politicians who We “entrust” to effectively lead this great nation, other than being quite concerned by the continued “charade” portrayed by our “beltway bandits” – it is not the WMD threat here which I am most concerned about, but more the dirty bomb and its psychological impact on the commuting population and f course these transatlantic flights which seem to be such a focus for these thugs, like the “Brutes of Tehran” who are always executing their intent in so many ways to the extent that I have been calling for our military commanders to be given the green light to attack Tehran given the blood of our youth on the hands if Tehran over and over….

We no longer have the political Will to stand up for our beloved Republic – for Democracy and unfortunately it will be the Germans (and the Vatican) once again and their utilization of modern, fast deployment Army who will engage these terrorists who are in the midst of the European neighborhoods to the dislike of Germans who will not tolerate much more. As far as WMD’s, keep a watchful eye on those in Pakistan – a danger for us all.

To those of us who love America so, respetful towards others, lawful in our ways, our flag of glory has always stood up and even taken arms and reluctantly given our youth to distant shore against those so abusive and so blatantly cruel in their way towards the oppressed and evil in their ways towards humanity (Lucifer), We still hold to our core values here on Main Street USA, yet weakened obviously by the arrogant greed and self-serving partisan ways of those who have pledged by oath to uphold the great Constitution of these United States and We have “entrusted” to work in cooperative spirit….

We are at peril, our nation and our most chraitable people, hope for so many who look to America for hope, our forefathers who forewarned us….

Comment by John Comiskey

July 18, 2011 @ 7:33 am

There are so many threats and we need subject matter experts to get into the weeds.

I am a proponent of an all-hazards approach to HLS. That means HLS practioners at all levels public and private must be aware of the nuances of each threat. The WMD-CBRNE threat is complex and requires subject matter expert to inform policy makers and practicioners how to deal with WMD-CBRNE attacks/mishaps, i..e. prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery.

Indiana-like WMD programs might facilite that need.

Their is some classified material that other than the FBI and certain agecencies might be not be privy to.
Simple solution, omit the classified material and operate in an open-source environment. Leave the classified part to the FBI and the other agencies to educate/train in a classified environment.

That said, it appears that the program is an beta stage and a 1-3 year assessment should demonstrate the programs worth. In the interim, other universities can establish their own niche programs if they wish or wait for the assessment of Indiana’s WMD program.

Final point, should the Indiana-WMD program meet the unique needs of the FBI and other LE agencies, it would demosntrate that the public and private sector and particularly academia partnerships can secure the homeland and that is the bottom line.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 19, 2011 @ 1:25 am

Jenkins is always a valuable source regarding terrorism. However, he doesn’t fully reject the possibility of nuclear terrorism, but emphasizes the role “nuclear terror” has had on the American public, in his view, out of step with the actual threat.

A perfectly defensible argument, but he still ends his book with a chapter detailing a nuclear terrorism scenario with an attempt at describing the possible outcomes. Plus, he recommends continuing programs focused on securing fissile material worldwide.

Never mind equipment that isn’t likely to pick up a nuclear (vs. rad) weapon anyway (Oppenheimer’s screwdriver comment still exists), since you do not belive nuclear terrorism is a threat I’m assuming you don’t believe there is a need to fund efforts to secure weapons-useable material worldwide? Not just that existing in weapons aresenals, but also at research reactors at universities and other non-military institutions? Why bother, right? If terrorists will never be able to use it, and one or two weapons worth are pointless for aspiring nuclear states, put the money toward something more useful…

Comment by Alan Wolfe

July 19, 2011 @ 5:28 am

Hi Arnold – I see you have indeed read Jenkin’s book. Yeah, I hated that last chapter, thought it was a bit fantastical, but he nailed it on the impact of “nuclear terror” – terrorists don’t need nukes to scare Americans. But I have to protest the strawman you put forward. Part of the reason why terrorists don’t bother with rad/nuke is because of enhanced security measures on fissile material. I’m generally in favor of securing any hazardous material from misuse, it shouldn’t be floating around and accessible. Nor should chlorine or phosgene gas cylinders. But let’s not overreact and start screaming about the ten kiloton nuclear device as justification for littering the world with radiological monitors that have to be sustained 24/7 throughout the year.

Funding the security of nuclear material and nuclear waste is important. However, obviously Congress doesn’t think it’s a top priority, otherwise Yucca Mountain Depository – a nine billion dollar investment (although I saw an article that raised it to $15 billion) – would be open for business today.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 19, 2011 @ 6:28 am

Once again hoping that many will read this post and comments. I assume FBI is paying entire costs of this course and wonder why the federal government continues to corrupt higher ed for its purposes by dominating curricula and those who may attend?

Why not just recruit forFBI at ages 17 and 18 and have an FBI service academy?

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