As reported in this blog, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has released its 2011 progress report against the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations (released in July 2004). Of particular interest was the section on page 31 titled “Strengthening Efforts to Detect and Report Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Threats.” This section directly addressed the Commission’s recommendation to “strengthen counterproliferation efforts” related to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), notably nuclear weapons.
(The military term “counterproliferation” is misused in the commission’s report. The proposed recommendations actually address nonproliferation and antiterrorism activities as measures to prevent a terrorist WMD incident. But I digress.)
DHS identifies its progress in countering radiological and nuclear threats by citing the deployment of thousands of radiological monitors at border crossings and to state and federal agents to “scan cars, trucks, and other items and conveyances for the presence of radiological and nuclear materials,” in addition to training on these devices. It cites the “Securing the Cities” initiative that has actually secured only one city – New York City – by the similar deployment of nearly 6000 pieces of radiological detection equipment and large scale exercises.
However, the progress report did not elaborate on DHS plans to spend more than $300 million on Advanced Spectroscopic Portal monitors, a plan that the Government Accountability Office says has not been assessed by an independent review panel. Such a review was suggested after DHS was accused of underestimating the cost of the monitors, overstating their benefits, and providing misleading information to Congress.
As for the troubled “Securing the Cities” initiative, perhaps the less said, the better. This 2006 initiative was originally intended as a pilot project to evaluate how law enforcement agencies might use radiological detection equipment within a major metropolitan city to detect, track, and interdict the movement of radiological or nuclear material.
New York City has required (demanded?) constant federal funding to continue this project because of the expense of sustaining this equipment and particular concept of operations, leading to a proposal that the federal government should permanently fund the New York City project and examine possibilities of replicating it in other cities. Of course, other cities will never see a similar project because of its high costs and the need to fund other, more conventional emergency response requests.
On the biological threat side, DHS has not yet expanded its Project BioWatch effort from the initial 30+ sites that were established over five years ago. More than 270 cities have populations over 100,000 people, which means there are a lot of major cities without any biological samplers.
DHS seems to be putting all of its chips on the development of a “Gen 3” detector that will significantly reduce operational costs by doing some level of automatic detection and analysis and reporting to officials. The current system only samples the air, requiring manual collection and analysis. However, the traditional wisdom has been that confirmatory identification in a laboratory is still required prior to alerting the state (and nation) as to a possible biological terrorist incident, because the severe consequences of announcing a “false positive” as real is something the federal government wants to avoid.
The cost and operation of an expanded detector array, addressing the majority of the nation’s major cities, will still be considerable, considering that DHS spends about $84 million a year to maintain the current system at 30 cities. I doubt that DHS will ever deploy and sustain a true nation-wide Project BioWatch effort.
This fixation on deploying biological and radiological monitors disturbs me for reasons other than cost and coverage. First, there is an obvious and deliberate lack of metrics in any discussion of the DHS projects described here. It’s easy to announce progress when there’s no ultimate objective in sight – you can avoid addressing those nasty details such as effectiveness of coverage and what limited range of hazards one is in fact addressing.
Second, when one actually reads the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations on addressing the proliferation of WMD (pp. 380-81), it becomes clear that the commission never called for such a detection array or even envisioned such a system. The commission focused on nonproliferation and law enforcement activities. That is because it recognized that “a complex terrorist operation aimed at launching a catastrophic attack cannot be mounted by just anyone in any place” (p. 365). It would require a large staff, opportunity and time to recruit operatives, a logistics network, access to special material, reliable communications, and ability to test the workability of the plan. In short, the larger the desired incident, the more visible the terrorist organization becomes.
The administration’s recently released “National Strategy for Counterterrorism” calls the danger of nuclear terrorism “the greatest threat to global security.” The nonproliferation community has jumped onto the alleged expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and potential vulnerability to al Qaeda attacks as evidence for the need for more nuclear nonproliferation and threat reduction programs, despite assurances by Admiral Mike Mullen and other security experts that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is in fact secure.
That doesn’t assure others that there could still be the potential leakage of nuclear weapons or material in the future. However, if the real concern is sourced at Pakistan’s nuclear program, then the strategy needs to be improving relations between India and Pakistan and continuing nonproliferation efforts, not in developing a “Global Nuclear Detection Architecture” that mirrors the Maginot Line in its effectiveness.
DHS developed its operational concepts for countering biological, radiological and nuclear threats based on the Defense Department’s operational concepts for nuclear and biological warfare between states. It is the wrong approach for countering transnational terrorists seeking to use WMD against the United States. What remains unexplained is the failure of the homeland security enterprise to assess or acknowledge the inadequacies of the current approach to meet the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations on countering the possibility of a terrorist WMD incident.