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.