Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 26, 2011

Implementing the 9/11 Commission’s Recommendations: Bio, Rad, and Nuke Threats

Filed under: Biosecurity,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on July 26, 2011

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.


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Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 26, 2011 @ 1:36 am

Great post with a lot of points I agree with.

Yet I still gotta ask, considering your opinion that “terrorist nuclear weapons are an object of fiction,” why even bother commenting on this topic?

I actually agree with the overall point about the inability of detection equipment/architecture to accomplish anything useful in the nuclear arena. But why bother using a narrow PR document as a stepping stone to a topic that should include DOD, DOE, and other efforts at securing fissile material worldwide?

And if it’s impossible, can’t we use those millions somewhere else? You pointed out that this question is a straw man-I can’t disagree, but I still consider it worth asking since the argument from the vast majority of nuclear terrorism skeptics is that it won’t happen because it’s too hard, not that it won’t happen because steps have been already taken to ensure that the required materials are out of reach of any potentially interested group.

Never mind the fact that those who study this issue still believe there are vulnerable stocks of weapons-useable material sitting there around the world…the other issue is whether you consider this topic one that should be/remain a concern of intelligence and homeland security officials?

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 26, 2011 @ 2:12 am

Agree with Arnold that this is a great post. It will be reinforced and hammered home by 9/11/2011 when GAO and others file devastating progress reports on this and other projects assigned DHS.

My concern is not with success or failures of technology but the fact that organizationally no real WMD CZAR aligning federal efforts so that maximum leverage and potential success made possible.

And of course Alan’s post points out inferentially that DOD and DHS have different missions and direct transfer of DOD culture and skills to DHS probably will not cut it when it comes to DHS mission and goals. I argue lazy leadership largely PR by the three lawyers all lacking technological backgrounds or scientific or engineering skills was a predictor for this outcome. DOD knows best when of course it cannot “win” wars despite the national treasures allocated to it.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

July 26, 2011 @ 6:53 am

Hi Arnold:

Yes, you have correctly noted that I am criticizing a govt program facing a threat I do not believe is probable. However, I am an analyst. If Very Serious People want to address a particular issue that they feel is real, even if I don’t, then as a professional I still can provide an evaluation of whether the steps taken are in fact addressing their scenario. So the question is, if DHS is tasked with addressing the 9/11 commission’s recommendations, in particular the threat of nuclear or biological terrorism, do they in fact have a defendable program? I would say, “no.”

It doesn’t matter what I think about the threat. Starting with the assumption that a transnational terrorist group is intent on bringing in such a threat, I can still point out that the detector-based strategy has significant shortfalls, in coverage, in sensitivity, in cost and effectiveness. The purpose of public policy analysis is to determine whether the approach is effective, why it is ineffective, and what are the limiting factors preventing its implementation. So here it is.

As to your last question, should this topic still be one of concern to intelligence and homeland security officials? Of course it should. It’s a possible threat, we can argue about the scope of the threat, but it’s possible. What we ought to be discussing is how the nation/state/cities should address this unconventional threat IN THE CONTEXT OF ADDRESSING ALL HAZARDS, what the roles and responsibilities are, and developing/funding/sustaining an effective program 24/7/365 – which is where everyone falls silent.

To William: yes, if only we had a WMD Czar…

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 26, 2011 @ 8:17 am

Of course I could argue and often do that the $80 Billion a year INTEL Community [defined by E.O. 12333 as amended)is supposed to analyze capabilities not necessarily threats of those not capable of conducting the operations. We know historically that the INTEL Community has been highly politicized from its many strategic misses and now wondering how much time and effort, and the competencies of those who try to discern capability on WMD issues for the INTEL Community? I deal with open source only but I did find Alan’s picking up on the erroneous use of “Counterproliferation” of interest.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 26, 2011 @ 9:34 am

I probably should repeat for the thousandth time that the WMD mission was DHS highest priority and mission. If you disagree you only have to read the legislative enactments and debates leading to enactment of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (November 23, 2002).

The next critical mission was CIP [critical infrastructure protection] which after fall 1997 was split into physical security and cyber security. It is the latter mission that was the DHS institutional priority based on its creation legal documents and debates.

The final DHS priority mission was collection, analysis, and dissemination of domestic intelligence providing that civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy protection was maintained or enhanced.

It will be of interest to see how GAO in its September 10th 2011 report analyzes the success or failure of DHS in these missions.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 26, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

Gotcha. Thanks for the explanation. I actually was confused about your attention to the issue, though upon re-reading my comment comes off more confrontational.

I generally agree with you on rad detection (and I’m a believer in the threat). However, on bio I think the strategy is right–early detection–but the tactics are wrong–a focus on sensors instead of public health.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

July 26, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

Arnold, we agree on bio. Early detection is key but the solution ought to be investing into the CDC’s Lab Response Network and NBIC. We should be integrating into the public health network instead of inventing a parallel conduit of environmental data.

And I’m not against radiological monitors, I think all HAZMAT crews in firefighter companies should have one. Just don’t believe it’s needed at all the border points or for the need of a central command post at DHS. Let DOE do their job with the states.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 26, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

Earlier today the House Homeland Security Committee, Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies held a hearing entitled: “The Last Line of Defense: Federal, State, and Local Efforts to Prevent Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism Within the United States.”

During the hearing Warren Stern, Director of the DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, testified, “The [Advanced Spectroscopic Portal] will not proceed as originally envisioned. We will not seek certification or large-scale deployment of the ASP.”

Lots of other interesting stuff at:

Comment by Be Weary. Do Not Underestimate Those Who Seek Our Demise....

July 27, 2011 @ 6:23 am

I wish (we) could believe that “terrorist nuclear weapons are an object of fiction” – in the uncertainties unfolding to the dismay of so many…the inept governing officials we have entrusted and they have so blatently failed – the bio attack on our transportation system – while I believe the threat to European cities far more probable especially as tensions increase ten fold between Christians and Islamic fundamentalists and the new Egyptian government soon to usher in far more stringent Islamic law affecting the entire Middle East and a Pakistan ripe for much chaos and WMD’s safely in the hands of a corrupt military?

We are s disorganized – so partisan in our ways – never underestimate those seeking to bring darkness to the west and surely eyes are on the fiscal disorder of our beloved Republic whereby Germany is taking the lead and the United States of Europe may one day decide to surprise us with a WMD or two with German markings! Nothing should be be construed as fiction – just the toppling of two buildings in the financial center caused much consternation and negatively affected our fiscal health — all threats -bio – rad and nuke, all a possibility, nothing I see as fiction despite the brightest minds as history has often portrayed the reality of man’s ability and willingness to destroy – I was looking again at Oslo and the destruction one deranged individual caused – one person shaking the country so….

We have taken Democracy for granted – be careful, vigilent as it was only 65 years ago and millions, yes miilions and millions as we all know, slaughtered, killed without concern for any one individual — human nature and those I refer to as Licifer, lurk about and are capable of causing much destruction and have no concerns about using all the aboev to bring us to our knees already half bent by our own doing, greed and corruption! This is fact, not fiction, Washington on either side of the aisle cannot repair the damage such idots have caused…We are destined for War and very difficult times – be prepared in every way – we are not immune from a 21st century world of technology and while this post should demand further discussion among others so brilliant, there is n fiction, We have seen the potential of man to employ whatever required to undermine another.

I (we) fear for our Republic, once a beacon of hope to the oppressed and now with one out of every seben Americans on food stamps and Germany with its lowest unemployment data in 20 years and production at great heights and a Vatican and German led EU focused on South America and talk of creating free travel with passport and visa from counrty to country like the EU, more problems, more possibilities that what some may suggest fiction, look out of the box and be prepared foor reality — We are in much peril — Those of us “seniors” here on “Main Street USA” some of whom recollect the smell of guts and bodies of fallen American heros as they marched through France and Germany, well it may be a good idea to hear the stories and hear the details and watch the eyes of these men who have lived througb the hell others have unleashed onto mankind — be weary – watch for the future is not at all optimistic as history is a good lesson, We just seem to have trouble giving value to such lessons —

God Bless America!

Christopher Tingus
PO Box 1612
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

*I (we) wholeheartedly agree that our first responders should be better trained and have equipment, the tools necessary to address a host of real possibilities — afford more funding to the metro fire, police and EMT’s – let’s get tjem ready for reality….

….we’ve lost our way and (we) discuss this blog and your valued contributins and experience, however many have seen the darkness of humanity and never underestimate any possibility as time brings challenges never imagined even by you the brightest! many in our group are merely foot soldiers who have stood in the front line and behind enemy line witnessing the unimaginable horror of what most could never imagine – be weary – watch Germany with its fast deployment Army and its manipulation of a corrupt United Nations organization which the US should stop funding — yet, it will not for obvious reasons….the German-led EU and its ever powerful cohort, the corrupt Vatican capable of far more than you can imagine….

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