Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 10, 2012

Words Have Meanings

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on January 10, 2012

The Christian Science Monitor noted the sentencing of 37-year old Kevin Harpham in federal court a few weeks ago.  He was charged with four counts, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, possession of an unregistered explosive device, and attempt to cause bodily injury with an explosive device because of race issues.

Harpham received a 32-year prison sentence for leaving a pipe bomb in a backpack along the intended route of a Martin Luther King Day march in Spokane, Washington, on January 17, 2011 — a year ago, next week. The pipe bomb held fishing weights coated with an anticoagulant associated with rat poison, which would have been ejected into the crowd by black powder ignited by a model rocket igniter. It didn’t work, fortunately for the march participants.

This story was of interest to me for two reasons. First of all, we have the FBI’s Seattle office describing Harpham as a “prototypical lone wolf;” the challenge being that there was no foreshadowing of a carefully planned attack. He hasn’t been named as a “homegrown terrorist” only because he was not directly or indirectly associated with a transnational terrorist group. While both Harpham and Faisal Shazad could both be appropriately identified as “domestic terrorists,” Harpham avoids the designation of “homegrown” only because he acted on his own.

It’s not that Harpham wasn’t associated with violent extremist groups. After a tour in the U.S. Army, he became an active member of the National Alliance, a white supremacy group. So it appears you get a pass from being called a “homegrown terrorist” if you’re a card-carrying member of a white supremacy group, but not if you’re an American citizen influenced by radical Muslim clerics based overseas.

Are these distinctions helpful? I’m not sure that they are. Both appear to be “lone wolves” in nature; the color of one’s skin and connections to overseas, rather than domestic, radical organizations do not appear to be useful discriminators.

I also have to notice that both Harpham and Shazad were both charged with attempting to use weapons of mass destruction, even though this was only a legal distinction  (Title 18 USC 2332a) and not a “WMD” incident in any sense of reality.

Neither the pipe bomb (Harpham) or an exploding propane tank (Shazad) could in any sense cause a mass casualty event. Neither device could be called equivalent to what the United Nations defines as a WMD – that is to say, a nuclear device or chemical or biological warfare agents.

So why does this bother me so?

In the DHS Quadrennial Homeland Security Report, Secretary Janet Napolitano calls on a “Homeland Security Enterprise” that includes the Departments of Justice, Defense, State, and the intelligence community. Only one agency uses the Title 18 definition of WMD – that would be the Department of Justice. So when the Defense Department reviews its “CBRN Enterprise” for homeland security, it uses a different definition, focusing on chemical, biological, and radiological hazards and nuclear devices used within U.S. borders.  The National Guard’s 57 WMD Civil Support Teams (CSTs) and its 17 CBRNE Emergency Response Force Packages (CERFPs) don’t do explosive threats (but the 20th Support Command [CBRNE] does, under specific scenarios). The Marine Corps CBIRF doesn’t do explosive threats, but the Navy EOD does provide experts for that niche. There is no agreement across the federal government on terminology (or perhaps, they agree to disagree).

The reason why this disturbs me is this: As the National Guard fiercely defends the continued deployment and sustainment of its CSTs and CERFPs, it remains a fact that the threat of a domestic – or transnational – terrorist group successfully using CBRN hazards to cause mass casualties is remarkably insignificant, for all practical purposes, zero.

There is no “WMD” threat out there.

There may be limited incidents involving industrial chemicals, attempts to derive ricin from castor beans, dreams of exploding heavy metal radioactive isotopes, but nothing that can be appropriately called a “mass casualty” capability. Nothing that the locals can’t handle.

But as long as the National Guard Bureau can point to the FBI’s documented list of “attempted WMD” cases, someone will claim that this justifies having this huge federal response force around, spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars every year just to sit and wait for the firehouse bell to ring. Because hey, it’s not as if the U.S. government had any real budget concerns.

I know that Congress will never let the U.S. military get rid of these costly luxuries. They’re show-pieces, political promises that if a WMD incident ever happens, well, by golly, won’t you be glad when the CSTs and CERFPs show up – hours after the state and local emergency responders have done the heavy lifting.

It’s a strategy, I suppose. Just not one I’m willing to endorse.

But at the least, the fact that the U.S. government cannot agree on the definition of “weapons of mass destruction” (or for that matter, consequence management) is glaringly apparent. We ought to at least be able to agree – and codify – one definition that defines a WMD as an incident involving nuclear, biological, or chemical munitions in a situation resulting in a mass casualty event – and then define what a mass casualty event is.

Little things like this keep me up at night.


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Comment by William R. Cumming

January 10, 2012 @ 11:45 am

I agree with much of this post. The problem of course is that little WMD or CBRNE capability exists with the STATES or their local governments and less each day that passes.

Over two decades the federal government led by a disorganized Congress and with a DoJ hoping for scraps essentially federalized terrorism as a federal crime. Thus over 100 definitions in the US Code not just in Title 18. Yes sorting that out might be of utility. NOTE THAT THERE IS NO MENTION ANYWHERE IN THE ROBERT T. STAFFORD ACT OF THE WORD “TERRORISM” WHICH IS AN INTERESTING OMISSION. So despite Congress at the behest of the Bush Administration adding the word “prevention” to the EM paradigm FEMA largely is right of the bomb not left of the bomb. Meaning after the event not before the incident or event.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

January 10, 2012 @ 3:35 pm

Yes, William, we have some seriously overdue housecleaning to accomplish. Just would hope that after the election madness has passed, our Homeland Security Enterprise could do a sane review of “WMD terrorism” and determine the proper role of the states and feds. I don’t know if the Stafford Act needs revisions, I’ll leave that to wiser people, but I would say that the states and locals could/can address CBRN hazards caused by individuals/terrorist groups pretty well. The courses are out there, the equipment is out there, it’s up to them to review the threat, prioritize the shortfalls, and determine what their budget can buy.

I think the NGB enterprise of CB reaction teams harkens back to pre-9/11 days of unpreparedness and lack of education and no federal grants, that situation doesn’t exist today. And then there’s those within DOD who keep thinking that planning for three simultaneous nuke strikes on US cities is a rational basis for resource demands. Just insane.

Comment by TwShiloh

January 10, 2012 @ 9:20 pm


Great post. You’re right that for some inexplicable reason the term ‘homegrown violent extremist’ (either explicitly or implicitly) only includes those inspired by al-Qaeda, its affiliates or those organizations assumed to be affiliated. Not sure why that is as it seems to preclude certain types of categorizations that might provide fruitful analyses.

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 10, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

Title XIV if the DoD Authorization Act of 1996 gave rise to the original WMD teams–commonly known as the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Act– or its real title Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act.

If you think ALAN that a FIRE SERVICE with 2.2 million members is trained to deal with WMD and CBRNE response when over 85% have no self contained breathing apparatus even for non-WMD events I believe you are unrealistic. Dosimetry ops by STATES and their local governments are also largely with uncalibrated instrumentation even where it exists in adequate numbers.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

January 11, 2012 @ 8:33 am

William, perhaps I have not explained myself clearly enough. I will first say that the idea that an individual or a group of people outside of the government will create a mass-casualty event using military-grade nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons is not just unrealistic but flat-out stupid. Aum Shinrikyo was a fluke, a blip on the screen. At best, you’re going to see small amounts of industrial chemicals, biological toxins, or grams of radioactive material. These are not mass-casualty events. Therefore, we do not need federal WMD CSTs, CERF-Ps, or DRFs, or whatever else comes down the pike. But you have to stop saying “WMD” when what you mean is “small CBR hazard that only affects 1-4 people.”

Second, it’s up to the locals and states to figure out how to do this, because “all disasters are local.” If, as you say, 85% of all fire services have no SCBA, maybe that’s because they’re being told to use DHS grants only for nerve agent detectors and biological agent samplers. If you REALLY want a sustained effort of emergency response along with resiliency built into the local/state infrastructure, then it’s up to SOMEONE to prioritize the threats and figure out what you can PAY FOR.

If you have an environment where the budget is depressed (say, like NOW), then you have to come to grips that you can’t protect against every threat with a robust capability. So if you think that non-WMD threats are more important than “WMD threats” (given that there have been zero WMD incidents in the past ten years-plus), then shouldn’t the locals/states/feds focus on that as a priority?

No, instead we see govt agencies and talking heads screaming “it’s not a question of if, but when” and insisting on hundreds of millions of dollars to prepare for something that may never happen. And the FBI/DoJ’s calling pipebombs and castor beans “attempted WMD” really doesn’t help.

Comment by Redrocket

June 1, 2012 @ 7:22 pm

Finally some one else sees the ridiculous waste of tax payer dollars. The politicians keep feeding the monster and both parties are either ignorant or choose to be baffled by the bull. I’ve been busy deploying and doing REAL IEDs overseas. I came home and see that people who don’t know the first flipping thing about them are claiming that they need all this gear for a so called WMD. Get a clue people. Civilian bomb techs are good, Military EOD can provide tools and tons of real world expierience if it really is anything more than a pipe full of black powder that a dummy didn’t even wire correctly. oh did I mention that the geniuses want to keep these ridiculous big money CST crap but cut the real bomb experts who call BS when they see it.

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