Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 30, 2014

The mitigation message

East Rivers Elementary

Cobb County elementary school children sleeping Tuesday night in the gym

Last Tuesday my train pulled into Union Station, Washington DC, shortly before noon.  The station and surrounding city were unusually quiet.  The Federal Office of Personnel Management had given most of its employees liberal leave to stay home.   Most area schools followed this lead.

On Capitol Hill — where I still had some meetings — the snow did not really begin until about 2:00 and was not quite as bad as predicted even into the height of the typical rush hour, which given the OPM decision had much more rush than usual.

By the next morning there was nearly 4 inches of snow at Reagan Airport and over 8 at Dulles.  Wednesday got underway with official delays.

Still some were inclined to second-guess the Tuesday mitigation decision made with the best possible information Monday night.

I hope the second-guessers are giving close attention to the more recent news out of Atlanta.

Even at dawn Tuesday, January 28 the best information available to Georgia decision-makers — very much including the general public — was that the worst weather would track south and east of Atlanta.  Beginning between about 7 and 8 that morning the best information began to shift.  By 10 it was snowing in Bartow County on the northwestern edge of metro Atlanta.  By 11 it was snowing hard and icing.  At 11:23 Cobb County Schools (along the Northwest Atlanta beltway) closed and began busing students home.  At 12:15 Georgia DOT suggested private-sector workers head home.

By 1:00 many Atlanta highways were grid-locked, more the result of sudden volume than — yet — because of the weather.  (Should bring back unpleasant memories of similar events in Chicago and DC in recent years.)  As some of you know, traffic is not an unusual problem in Atlanta, even in fragrant and sunny springtime.

At 1:55 the Governor declared a State of Emergency; the most immediate effect being to pour state employees onto already packed roads.  Across the United States we are predisposed to evacuations.  It is a bad — sometimes, someplaces deadly — habit.

By mid-afternoon the snow and especially ice were adding to the problems.  You have probably seen the videos.  There were several hundred vehicle accidents just in the Atlanta area.

On Wednesday many Tuesday afternoon commuters were still stuck in their cars.  Some had abandoned their vehicles.  In several cases school buses were forced to retreat back to classrooms.  Several hundred children — the numbers are still unclear — spent the night in their schools. (See picture above.) My ten-year-old nephew got home from school, but neither of his parents could.  Shane spent the night at the neighbors.

There will be after-action analyses. There will be studies.  There will be hearings.  There will be blame-gaming. There will be lessons-learned.

What I hope someone will declare clearly and well is that 1) there are many things we cannot accurately predict, 2) especially in unpredictable contexts innate vulnerabilities are exposed, and 3) in densely networked environments, like cities, these vulnerabilities can sometimes meet and mate, propagating suddenly and prolifically.

So… for a whole host of risks we are wise to invest in mitigation and to keep in mind that what will always seem an over-investment before will likely pay profitable dividends after.

This principle applies well beyond the weather, including water systems, supply chains, fuel networks, bridges, and much, much more.

January 14, 2014

Private-public collaboration essential to water restoration effort

watermap142way-e979d8fbc348e91bc7f6b4dc09e00da25d6b0f94-s6-c30

With the active, coordinated, nearly  synchronous involvement of neighborhoods and individuals across the region the Kanawha Valley is currently engaged in a process of flushing and restoring a 1700-mile water network.  A continually updated map is available here.

This is an amazing example of “whole community” in action.

January 13, 2014

Water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

MONDAY EVENING UPDATE:

Several media outlets — and some private emails — indicate some areas of the Kanawha Valley are being told their tap water is again safe to consume.  Different areas are being “cleared” in a step-by-step process of flushing and multiple-testing.

–+–

Last week an unknown amount of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol leaked from a storage tank into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia (one estimate referenced 5000 gallons, another estimate is 7500 gallons). About one mile downstream from the discharge is the intake for a water system serving most of nine counties and up to 300,000 persons.

By Thursday evening a “Do Not Use” order was announced. Water customers were instructed to avoid bodily contact with tap water. Water has continued to flow for sanitation and firefighting (and to flush the system).

Even 24 hours after the spill the contamination risk was not well-understood. While not thought to be toxic, the chemical can cause irritation of the eyes and skin. Ingestion could cause nausea, gastrointestinal distress, and liver damage.

The chemical is known to be harmful in concentrations of 500 parts per million. By Friday evening levels of the chemical’s concentration in the Elk River near the water intakes had dropped from 2 to 1.7 parts per million.  On Saturday it was announced the “Do Not Use” order would not be lifted until a comprehensive testing process found concentrations of less than 1 ppm throughout the Kanawha Valley water network.  On Monday morning several spot-checks are reporting levels below 1 ppm.

The water network involves over 100 storage tanks and 1700 miles of pipeline.  On Saturday the water company explained, “Concentric flushing beginning at a central location and moving out to the far ends of the distribution system is expected to take several days but will not be simultaneous based upon the construction of the system. The timeline may vary based on geographic location, customer demand and other factors that impact water usage and availability.”

Retail supplies of bottled water quickly sold out on Thursday night and Friday.  But by Saturday most stores had been resupplied and some major retailers were providing customers water at no charge.  Several public distribution locations had also been established.  FEMA has shipped over 1.5 million liters into West Virginia.  Proactive efforts are being made to ensure drinking water distribution to the elderly, disabled, and other vulnerable populations.  Both private and public supply chains will continue to surge water into the greater Charleston area.

This is a still developing situation.  Lots of lessons — and pseudo-lessons — are likely to emerge.  With appropriate trepidation, let’s begin to gather some observations and hypotheses.

Prevention and Mitigation

In my personal experience secondary-effects on water systems are especially consequential. I have seen urban areas emerge from a detailed analysis of a nuclear detonation in what seemed a survivable condition only to have the water system fail and unwind an entire region.

As with many — most — modern systems of supply urban water systems are nodal networks.   These networks are innately more efficient on good days and innately predisposed to catastrophic cascades on bad days.  Trouble at any node is likely to propagate to other nodes.   The nodes — electrical, logistical, water, whatever — are especially susceptible to no-notice concentration stresses.   (This is what is currently speculated to have happened at the UPS Worldport on the weekend before Christmas causing one of the best supply chains in the world to nearly collapse.)

A significant aspect of the problem in West Virginia is that the — largely unknown — chemical was released in considerable quantity so close to the node.  There was not sufficient time-and-space for dilution to do its magic before the whole system was contaminated.  Electrical, computing, fuel, and other networks are vulnerable to analogous risk.

Response

West Virginia is on the edge of four regional supply chain networks.  This is so rough to be at least a bit misleading, but think of large circles radiating out from Washington-Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Charlotte/Roanoke.  Depending on the commodity or sector, these circles overlap in West Virginia.

I expect — but it is only an informed guess — that the spike in demand signals began emerging after Thursday orders and Friday morning deliveries were processed.  So it took until Friday morning to seriously engage the unexpected explosion in demand.  Then it was late Friday or early Saturday before sufficient commercial stocks of bottled water could be redirected into the network.

Again just an informed guess, but Kroger, Walmart, Sysco, and  McLane are probably the principal distributors of bottled water in West Virginia.  They will also be the principal sources for sanitizers, baby wipes, paper plates, and related products  For players this size, there is an existing strategic capacity to surge supply.  While 300,000 with a no-notice loss of drinking water is non-trivial it does not exhaust capacity… especially because this is on the edge of four regional supply networks, each with very deep resources. The challenge is more an issue of transport than supply.  So… by Saturday the commercial supply chain was aware of the problem, reorganizing to supply the problem, and largely successful doing so.

Provision of water by local fire departments, state emergency resources, and FEMA is a crucially important complement to the commercial supply chains.  Red Cross, churches and similar organizations are especially important to filling the demand-and-supply gap for non-mobile populations.

My off-the-cuff analysis would not be nearly so benign if a similar event hit a much more densely populated area that was served by a less diverse supply chain.

Recovery

Contamination events are especially challenging.  How do you prove a negative?  Rumors will fly faster than facts.  Bottled water is going to be more popular in the Kanawha Valley than ever before, enjoying sustained demand long after chemical concentrations fall below 1 part per million.

Nodes are important here too.  What and who are the psycho-social nodes in this (these) communities?  What relationships have already been established?  How can those relationships be energized in this instance to deal with this issue?  Will these communities respond as victims, as survivors, as heroes? And what, in retrospect, will they decide to learn?

One of my West Virginia friends who contributed to this report offered,  ”Tell your readers that if they want to help they need to plan their next vacation or convention for Charleston.” Basic human needs are being addressed, but the long-term economic consequences will be very troubling.

Much more to come.  This crisis continues. But in any case, Coleridge was right:

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink….

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

Rime of the Ancient Mariner

July 25, 2013

A missing link in strategy?

Earlier this week I was re-reading the DHS Strategic Plan (2012-2016).  I perceived something — actually its absence —  I had not noticed before.

Community involvement is, of course, a recurring mantra in the Strategic Plan and many other DHS policy, strategy, and operational documents. “Whole Community” is prominent in Mission 5: Ensuring Resilience to Disaster.  Other missions include similar language.  For example Mission 1: Preventing Terrorism and Enhancing Security has a goal to “Increase community participation in efforts to deter terrorists and other malicious actors and mitigate radicalization toward violence.”

A close reading of the Strategic Plan suggests the whole is made up of the following parts:

Individual
Family
Household
Neighborhood
Community
Private and Non-Profit Sectors
Faith Based organizations
Localities
States
Tribes
Federal Partners
Nation
All Segments of Society

Especially with those catch-all terms it’s not that my “absence” is excluded.  But it is not given explicit attention.  Certainly not priority.

What prominent place in the life of most Americans is not referenced?

The workplace.

Indirectly this is part of the private sector or non-profit-sector or local and state government or whatever other sector in which you work. But these “sectors” are abstractions. The workplace is a concrete — often literally glass, steel, and concrete — place. Yet the only time “workplace” is referenced in the Strategic Plan is with workplace standards for protecting intellectual property and “workplace wellness” programs for DHS employees.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Americans age 25-to-54 spend an average of 8.8 hours per day at work. This is a larger block than any other activity, much larger than any other non-sleeping activity surveyed.

Yet the places where we work are not regularly conceived or engaged as venues where homeland security priorities can be pursued.

There are exceptions. I am aware of a few.  I welcome you highlighting successful exceptions in the comments.

The absence of the workplace from the DHS Strategy reveals a strategic perspective.  It is another example of the disconnect between private and public domains.  Clearly government is a place where homeland security is to be practiced.  There is considerable effort to engage neighborhoods and sometimes schools. These are real places too, but much more public than private in their character.

Is a “community” — whole or not — a real place?  It depends, in my experience, on the community and how an outsider approaches the putative community.

There are offices, distribution centers, power plants, factories and refineries, restaurants, hotels, retail stores and many more real places where each day the vast majority of Americans spend the majority of their waking hours.  Most of these places feature a task-oriented culture with management processes already in place.  Most of these places are self-interested in a reasonable level of safety, continuity, and resilience.

In my personal experience most of these places are wonderful contexts for the practical practice of homeland security.

There is a tendency for modern strategic thinking to be more comfortable with space than place.  See battlespace and cyberspace, even Space Command.  I am often an advocate for differentiating between Theater Command and Incident Command and perceive we give too little attention to the Big Picture.  But it is not, of course, one or the other: it is a continuum.

Real risks, threats, vulnerabilities and consequences usually unfold in real places where people come and go everyday.

Interesting what you can miss even when it’s right in front of you.  I’ve read that strategy a half-dozen times.  Wonder what else is hiding in plain sight?

May 2, 2013

Catastrophe: Should’a, Would’a, Could’a

“I should prefer Mozart. Mostly I listen to 70s hits.”

“I should eat a hot breakfast, but usually have a powerbar instead.”

“I should work-out three or four times a week, maybe I walk around the block twice.”

Should has become moralistic.  It is typically used as a kind of anti-verb, ascribing — often anticipating — non-action.

I have heard a lot of “shoulds” in regard to the explosion of the West, Texas fertilizer storage facility. The April 17 blast killed 14 and injured more than 190 in the town of 2700.

“We should regulate better.”

“We should put buffer zones in place.”

“We should be more realistic about the threat.”

“We should do a better job sharing what we know about the risk.”

“We should focus more on pre-event prevention and mitigation.”

More plural pronouns than singulars it seems.

According to a November 2012 analysis undertaken by the Congressional Research Service, 6,985 chemical facilities self-report they pose a risk to populations greater than 1,000. There are 90 that self-report a worst-case risk affecting up to 1 million people.

The West facility was not included in the CRS analysis.  They did not self-report — or evidently self-conceive — a worst case scenario that would seriously harm anyone.

As regular readers know I have for a few years worked on catastrophe preparedness.

One of the most remarkable — and absolutely predictable — aspects of this gig is the readiness — preference really — by nearly everyone to define catastrophe as something non-catastrophic.  I saw it again last week and this.  It extends across the public-private divide and every level of government.  When a few of us argue otherwise we are being pedantic, unrealistic, and wasting people’s time.

We should give regular time and energy — maybe five percent of overall effort — to truly catastrophic risks: Global pandemic, significant earthquakes and cyclonic events hitting major urban areas, sustained collapse of the electrical grid whatever the cause. Each of these could have far-reaching secondary and tertiary effects.  In some regions I would include wildfire and flooding. If you have a chemical storage or processing facility nearby that is absolutely worth worst-case thinking now not later.

In many cases the most important issues relate to the mitigation of systemic vulnerabilities that are threat-agnostic.  ”Fixing” vulnerabilities can reduce consequences for a whole host of threats, including non-catastrophic threats.

USA Today editorialized, “The Boston Marathon bombings overshadowed the disaster in Texas, but what happened in West was deadlier, and preventing the next fertilizer accident should command serious attention.”

There’s that anti-verb again.

–+–

And how I wish I’d, wish I’d thought a little bit more
Now shoulda, woulda, coulda I means I’m out of time
Shoulda, woulda, coulda can’t change your mind
And I wonder, wonder what I’m going to do
Shoulda, woulda coulda are the last words of a fool

Can’t change your mind
Can’t change your mind

Beverly Knight

July 28, 2011

New Study on Aum Shinriko’s Bio and Chem Programs

Filed under: Biosecurity,Chemical Security,Risk Assessment,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Arnold Bogis on July 28, 2011

Ten years of Al Qaeda-focused concern about terrorism may have faded the memory of a group that in the 1990s had significant programs aimed at developing biological and chemical weapons and successfully used Sarin nerve gas in an attack on the Tokyo subway, killing 13 and injuring thousands. Reminding us of those efforts and seeking to cull insights from their work, The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) has released a report, “Aum Shinrikyo: Insights Into How Terrorists Develop Biological and Chemical Weapons.” According to their website, this report

“culminates a multi-year project led by Richard Danzig, former Secretary of the Navy and Chairman of the CNAS Board of Directors; with Marc Sageman, Advisor to the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army on the Insider Threat; Terrance Leighton, Senior Staff Scientist at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and Chief Scientist at Science Applications International Corporation; Lloyd Hough, Senior Research Scientist at Battelle in International Technology Assessments; Zachary Hosford, Research Associate at CNAS; and two Japanese colleagues investigating these issues.  Through personal interviews and correspondence with former members of Aum Shinrikyo’s leadership, the report provides never-before documented information on the terrorist group and its operations.”

It is an interesting document that provides a great deal of detail about the cult’s evolution, members, and technical background on their efforts to produce and deploy biological and chemical weapons.  From this narrative the authors have pulled out ten points that they feel can be useful in understanding future terrorist groups who may attempt to go down a similar path.  Here are the points, though I would strongly recommend reading the report itself for explanation and in-depth analysis of each observation:

1. Aum’s biological program was a failure, while its chemical program was even more capable than would have been evident from its successful release of sarin in the Tokyo subway system in 1995.

2. Effectively disseminating biological and chemical agents was challenging for Aum.

3. Accidents recurred in Aum’s chemical and biological programs but did not deter pursuit of these weapons.

4. When Aum’s top members transitioned to using violence, they readily brought other leaders down this path and effectively persuaded, isolated or killed dissidents.

5. Though police pursuit of Aum was remarkably lax, even intermittent or anticipated enforcement actions highly disrupted the cult’s efforts to develop chemical and biological weapons.

6. The key work on Aum’s biological and chemical programs was conducted largely by the leadership group.

7. Aum’s hierarchical structure facilitated initiating and resourcing biological and chemical programs.

8. Even a retrospective assessment of biological and chemical weapons programs like this one is difficult and burdened with gaps and uncertainties.

9. Aum displayed impressive persistence and produced successes despite its commitment to many bizarre ideas, its misallocation of resources and its numerous operational failures.

10. Significant failures preceded or accompanied Aum successes.

Guns and bombs will continue to be the most likely weapon utilized by terrorists, and as Anders Breivik demonstrated, they can be horrendously destructive.  Yet it has been more than 15 years since Aum used Sarin in the Tokyo subway and technological trends are not moving in a direction that will make it more difficult for future groups to attempt something similar.  A balanced counter-terrorism approach is necessary to prevent the most likely types of attacks while not closing our eyes to the possible, if more remote, threats.

Or as the authors put it:

“Groups such as Aum expose us to risks uncomfortably analogous to playing Russian roulette. Many chambers in the gun prove to be harmless, but some chambers are loaded. The blank chambers belie the destructive power that the gun can produce when held to the head of a society.”

 

October 19, 2010

It’s a question of “if, not when” we ever see a mass casualty CBRN incident

Filed under: Biosecurity,Catastrophes,Chemical Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on October 19, 2010

Albert J. Mauroni is an analyst with twenty five years experience in chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological (CBRN) defense policy and program development.  He has written six books about chemical and biological warfare.

Mauroni recently wrote an article about how the US homeland security enterprise addresses the threat of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear terrorism.  He argues that our policy is flawed fundamentally.

Here are selected excerpts from his contrarian –  very readable and compelling — article (the full document is available here ).

————————————

Some History

Our current homeland security approach to CBRN terrorism seems to have its basis in the incidents of 9/11 and the U.S. anthrax attacks in October-November 2001. However, our history of homeland defense goes back to 1941 (at least); to understand from a policy perspective how the government ought to address domestic CBRN terrorism, we need to put it all in context.

… Initially, the federal government saw its role strictly as providing a response to the intentional use of military weapons against U.S. cities and noncombatants. First it was the fear of German and Japanese bombers and missiles hitting U.S. cities on the coast. Then it was the threat of Soviet bombers and missiles. But the congressional response was not to spend great deals of money on this threat. Over time, the state and local officials were not as concerned about the possibility of external attack as they were the power of Mother Nature. Congress, influenced by those state and local officials, decided it was more important for the federal government to respond to states and locals affected by natural disasters and accidents rather than external threats. That balance was rudely jarred after 9/11, and we have yet to re-establish a more balanced view.

What does “WMD” mean?

The term “WMD” was the word of the year in 2002, but quickly fell into abuse as a term of political rhetoric and comedic punch lines. It was originally developed in 1948 by the United Nations as an accepted arms control term to describe the nation-state use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.…

The military defines WMD as nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons that can cause a “high order of destruction.” I would add to this definition that the intentional use of these weapons needs to cause mass casualties….

The presence of mass casualties is a key aspect of the WMD incident, but “mass casualties” is an undefined and nebulous phrase. In general, people use the term to describe a situation in which there is one more casualty than the number of available hospital beds in the local area…. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) chose the number of 1,000 injured or dead people for the trigger for its Metropolitan Medical Response Forces.

I disagree with the FBI’s use of the Title 18 U.S. Code definition of WMD because of its deliberate lack of reference to the scale of the incident. To the Department of Justice (DoJ) lawyers, any amount of CBRN or explosives, no matter how small, constitutes a WMD. Even [inert] devices or hoaxes can have WMD aspects.

In my mind, the term “WMD” is only useful as an arms control term…..

…I’m not against consideration of high-yield explosives, directed energy lasers, or other weapons that could realistically cause mass casualties. Ricin and botolinum toxin, often used in small amounts for assassinations, are not WMD. Airplanes used to cause mass casualty events are not WMD. Pipebombs and grenades are not WMD.

What do you think about CBRNE?

I don’t like the term “CBRNE” because that’s an antiterrorism term, not a WMD term. The military police and emergency responders within the DOD antiterrorism community started using “CBRNE” in the late 1990s because of numerous terrorist incidents such as the bombing at Khobar Towers, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Aum Shinrikyo’s Tokyo subway incident. But the antiterrorism community really doesn’t worry about the “CBRN” as much as they do the “E.” When it comes to assigning resources and time to the most credible threats, the more probable threat of explosives wins over CBRN hazards every time.

Terrorists get their material and technology where they can, from the local economy. They don’t have the time, funds, or interests to get exotic. That’s what we see, over and over again. The [National Counter Terrorism Center] noted that, in 2008, there were approximately 11,800 terrorist attacks resulting in more than 54,000 deaths, injuries, and kidnappings. Nearly all were caused by armed assaults, bombings, suicide attacks, kidnappings, and other conventional forms of assault.

DHS and CBRN

In 2003, DHS began developing its CBRN terrorism response efforts by basically copying the DOD’s CBRN defense concept. This included recommending the use of plastic sheets and duct tape for homes and businesses to provide “shelter in place” collective protection and the use of point detectors to identify lethal levels of chemical, biological, and radiological hazards.

There were two major problems with this approach. First, the threat of CBRN hazard exposure to people at home (or even businesses) was about near zero, and second, the low probability of a CBRN hazard being used on any one day during the year at any one particular site within the United States was practically zero.

It was not a sustainable strategy if one demanded eternal vigilance at all locations with the goal of eliminating all threats. And of course, the U.S. government wasn’t protecting all potential terrorist targets.

Homeland Security Planning Scenarios

The Homeland Security Planning Scenarios are ridiculously unrealistic in portraying the expected threats to the homeland. Of the fifteen scenarios, eleven are CBRN-focused, and not just typical CBRN hazards but significant quantities of military warfare agents such as anthrax, smallpox, sarin nerve agent, and mustard agent.

They are “worst-case” scenarios, which are good for leadership exercises where you want to encourage interagency communications or to identify whether policies or resources are a limiting factor, but they are lousy for making resourcing decisions.

Worst-case scenarios rely on movie-theater plots that maximize the threat only because that’s the best way to get a maximum number of senior leaders within multiple agencies at the federal level involved to play in a short, annual national exercise. The 10-kiloton nuclear scenario is particularly ridiculous….

Terrorists and WMD

I don’t believe in the popular assumption that terrorists are actively working with “rogue nations” to exploit WMD materials and technology. The evidence isn’t there. Nation states invest heavy amounts of people and funds to develop specific unconventional weapons, and if they were to give or sell them to terrorists, one of two things could happen – either the weapons would be traced back to them, or the weapons might get used someplace where the nation state regrets.

The basic approach used by terrorists and insurgents is to seek out and use low-risk, easily-acquired weapon systems. Any weapon that can be improvised using available and accessible materials is good; any weapon that can be bought on the open market and easily used is good. CBRN materials don’t fit that niche.

The generic terrorist threat is often referenced without any specific understanding of specific group motivations or activities. Al Qaeda has stated intentions to use CBRN hazards, but this has not led to the actual development of any specific capabilities. …. We’re blindly attacking the tools instead of the terrorists.

The reason why terrorists are interested in CBRN hazards is because so many senior [US] leaders keep vocalizing how afraid they are of this particular threat. Before 9/11, the interest was not as strong (and the senior leader rhetoric about “WMD threats” wasn’t, either).

While terrorists are interested in CBRN hazards, they can’t get the dangerous precursor materials, they don’t have any training in handling or dispersing these hazards, and they don’t understand the particular effects on their targets. So we see some scattered use of industrial chemicals, some production of ricin toxin from castor beans, a few grams of radioactive material stolen from a facility – not exactly mass casualty threats.

As terrorists attempt to develop more sophisticated weapons in an effort to create mass casualties, their machinations become more public and it actually becomes easier to catch them.

Chemical Weapons

Chemical terrorism has been downplayed recently, ironically because it doesn’t cause enough casualties for high-consequence scenarios. Chemical terrorism remains the most likely form of CBRN terrorism, if one looks at the relative ease of obtaining industrial chemicals from the economy and low threshold of training and equipment required.

Still, people focus on the nerve agents as the “likely” threat, not because they’re available, but because they’re the most lethal.

Actual cases show terrorists seeking available industrial chemicals rather than making nerve agents, with one exception. Aum Shinrikyo had millions of dollars, facilities, trained chemists, and years of practice to make its sarin nerve agent. Most terrorist groups lack those resources.

DHS and Chemical Weapons

I’m not a proponent of the DHS Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Standards, where the department looks to identify all chemical storage facilities and to make their owners assess the security of their chemicals. All this does is cause incentives to industry to move the chemicals somewhere else. Instead of focusing on the major producers, DHS diminishes its efforts by trying to cover tens of thousands of small facilities and anyone using a chemistry kit. It becomes a paperwork drill where no one addresses the really tough problems.

The railcar discussions are particularly amusing, in that there is so much concern about a hazmat derailment within a major city. So the answer is to divert hazardous materials around a city, right? There are two things wrong with that – the secondary rails are less well maintained, and so represent a greater safety risk. And legal issues with regulation of interstate rail transport get in the way.

Bioterrorism

Bioterrorism is the flavor of the year, thanks to a recently-released government report titled “World At Risk” by former senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent.  Hollywood and fiction novels have done their best to ensure we all believe that a contagious virus without any cure is being secretly developed in a government lab and will wipe out civilization as we know it….

One requires a large amount of biological warfare (BW) agent to successfully cause mass casualties, and these agents can’t be made in a bathtub. You can’t go to Wal-Mart stores to obtain dangerous biological assays or to Home Depot for equipment to grow biological material. Bruce Ivins was successful because he had a full laboratory suite and starter material available to him, plus decades of experience in handling anthrax.

There are at least a dozen top BW threats, but under Project Bioshield we have vaccines for only two of them. Maybe in another ten years, we’ll have a few more vaccines, but certainly not twelve. For the 270 cities in the United States with a population of more than 100,000, only thirty-odd cities have Project Biowatch detectors. It’s a very expensive project to sustain against a wide variety of potential threats. ….I already mentioned the lack of vaccines and medical countermeasures for biological agents. The challenge was, and continues to be, that Big Pharma has no incentive to get involved in researching these specialized medical countermeasures. It’s too expensive, it’s not profitable, and it could lead to lawsuits if the drugs are incorrectly used.

… [W]e’ll never get adequate coverage for the entire United States, or even a majority of the nation’s major cities, because it is too expensive to run 24/7 and to test all the samples in a lab. Even with the proposed Gen 3 biowatch detector, which doesn’t exist right now, DHS plans to roughly double its monitors to cover sixty cities. Using point detectors for national special security events makes sense. Biowatch doesn’t.

Radiological Weapons

Radiological terrorism gets people excited because, even though the nature of radiological hazards hasn’t changed in more than six decades, there’s something about radiation that spooks us. The term “dirty bombs” has a sinister sound. But of all the terrorist CBRN hazards, radiological devices (RDD) are certainly not WMD. We have never had an RDD incident to date, and yet so many people like to worry about the loose or available radiological isotopes that could be grabbed up by terrorists.

I’m very critical about the approach to addressing radiological terrorism. It’s no surprise that the easiest way to reduce our risk in this area is to secure all the radiological material that industry uses and to place it in one location that could be guarded. Instead, because of NIMBY politics, the decision was made to close down a $9 billion nuclear material repository and to maintain the status quo of storing nuclear material in “temporary” storage near more than 120 nuclear facilities across the nation.

The Nuke Threat

[L]et’s look at the real 800-pound gorilla in the room. Some people fear that al Qaeda is going to somehow obtain a nuke from Pakistan, disable the safety mechanisms, and transport it to a U.S. city. Some fear that al Qaeda will build a crude nuclear bomb, using technical expertise and material through the global economy. The scenario of a 10-kiloton nuclear blast is what causes people to “lose sleep,” allegedly. And yet, if you examine the facts, it’s not likely at all that this is a credible scenario.

[N]ations with nuclear technology or materials need to consider whether the bomb will be traced back to them, and where the bomb might be used. It might not be in the United States, it might be in a neighboring country.

The number of people who would need to be engaged to get/build a bomb and move it to the United States, let alone engineer a successful detonation, would make this a complex operation that would be visible to law enforcement and the intelligence community.

We have no compelling evidence that any nation has provided a terrorist group with chemical or biological weapons – why on earth would they provide a terrorist group with nuclear weapons? It doesn’t make sense.

The “high-altitude EMP blast” scenario is particularly outlandish, suggesting that a terrorist organization would be able to move a ballistic missile to the coast of the United States and set off a megaton nuke 200 miles over the country just to collapse the electronic infrastructure and turn America into a pre-industrial society. There are better odds that an asteroid the size of Texas might collide with a major city within the United States.

Bottom line, we’re already petrified that al Qaeda is going to nuke America, even lacking any evidence that it has one or could get a nuclear weapon. So why does al Qaeda need a nuclear bomb? It already has accomplished its purpose of terrifying the country. And yet, we see the unfolding of this massive “Global Nuclear Detection Architecture” that’s designed to ensure our politicians can sleep well at night. We could cite the statistics – the hundreds of ports, the thousands of miles of border, the “second line of defense” – and ask is this the most effective way to address the challenge of a terrorist rad/nuke incident?

The scope of the global architecture keeps growing. In addition to the major air and sea ports and border crossings, the DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office has proposed going after all the smaller air and sea ports that cater to private vessels. And then there’s the idea of populating the major cities and interstate roads between cities with radiological monitors. Is this a sustainable plan? Is it really effective, considering the limits of radiological detection technology? I would argue, no. The false alarms and cost of maintaining such a nation-wide system are prohibitive, considering the very low probability of occurrence and other options available to the national security community.

But what if?

Let’s assume that, worst case, a nuclear bomb is smuggled into a major U.S. city. Let’s not pick New York City, that’s been debated enough. But say a nuke goes off in Atlanta or Chicago or Seattle. Let’s assume that the terrorists had a functional bomb that yielded a 10-kiloton blast, not a crude device that resulted in a 1-2 kiloton fissile. Certainly thousands of Americans would die and a city would be irrevocably damaged. But would the United States stop, falter, collapse as a nation? No. A single nuclear terrorist event is not an existential threat to such a massive country. It can be managed, and given all the effort already in place to prevent such an incident, it’s not what ought to be keeping us up at night.

If the current US approach to CBRN homeland security policy is wrong, what should we be doing instead?

[We] need serious reviews of the policies that are in place and to use [a] … “risk-based” management approach to ensure that we are spending our funds wisely.

We continue to view WMD or CBRN hazards as the threat – that’s a myopic focus. We need to look at the process by which terrorists develop their tools and understand that it is by defeating the terrorists that we can stop the CBRN threat. When you take a realistic look at the threat and what terrorists can actually do – outside of a television show like 24 – it’s not a difficult thing. We can do this more smartly.

[We] need to [stop] the loose use of the term “WMD.” It only confuses the discussion and presents an unachievable goal that obstructs serious discussion.

We need to clearly separate the concepts of how militaries defend against NBC weapons and how emergency responders address terrorist CBRN hazards.

We should not act as if a terrorist group has the capability to do as much damage as a nation with an active WMD program.

The Homeland Security Planning Scenarios have to be changed to reflect realistic and probable threats, not “worse-case” scenarios. By using the scenarios as the basis for national-level exercises, we risk the danger of overestimating the actual need for unique and specialized resources that may never be employed within our lifetimes.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the majority of incidents requiring federal response to state and local emergency responders will be for natural disasters and industrial accidents rather than WMD.

It actually is a question of “if, not when” we ever see a CBRN terrorist incident that results in mass casualties. We need a sustainable, effective approach, which requires us to stop overhyping the threat. It’s not September 12, 2001, anymore. We need to realistically assess the challenge and all possible threats – natural and man-made – and calmly, rationally, develop a plan that doesn’t bankrupt the annual operating budget.

None of us have enough money to provide perfect protection for everyone throughout the year, and there are better things to spend money on….

————————————

The complete article, Homeland Insecurity: Thinking About CBRN Terrorism, is available at this link.

July 29, 2009

CCMRF: Constitutional Consequence Management Response Force

Filed under: Biosecurity,Chemical Security,Homeland Defense,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Philip J. Palin on July 29, 2009

Yesterday the House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities heard testimony on chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosives(CBRNE)  consequence management.  (See and hear the video.)

 David Heyman, DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy, set out the CBRNE threat.  Reviewing a list of recent events, Heyman concluded, “We can no longer discuss risk abatement of chemical, biological, and nuclear/radiological attacks as if these types of attack are unthinkable or undoable. U.S. intelligence, and the most recent intelligence around the world, continue to report that terrorists are intent on acquiring CBRNE weapons for use against the United States.”

There is a brigade-size federal active duty element allocated to NORTHCOM as a “CBRNE Consequence Management Response Force”  a/k/a CCMRF. A second brigade is scheduled to be in place by October.  A third by October 2010.  While specializing in CBRNE threats, the same forces could be deployed in response to a variety of events.

In his prepared testimony, General Victor Renuart, the USAF four-star who heads NORTHCOM, explained, “CCMRF is a task force (approximately 4,700 people) that operates under the authority of Title 10. CCMRFs are self-sustaining and may be tailored to any CBRNE event. A CCMRF is composed of Army, Marine, Navy and Air Force units with unique CBRNE training and equipment and general purpose units trained to operate in proximity to a hazardous or contaminated environment. CCMRF capabilities include event assessment, robust command and control, comprehensive decontamination of personnel and equipment, HAZMAT handling, air and land transportation, aerial evacuation, mortuary affairs, and general logistical support to sustain extended operations.”

In October 2008 the American Civil Liberties Union initiated a FOIA request that raised several concerns regarding the CCMRF, including, “The deployment of CCMRF marks the first time an active military unit has been given a dedicated assignment to Northern Command, which was established in 2002 to assist federal homeland defense efforts and coordinate support of civil authorities. It raises important questions about longstanding separation between civilian and military government within the United States — a separation that dates to the Nation’s founding and that has been reiterated in landmark statutes, most importantly, the Posse Comitatus Act 18 U.S.C. Para. 1385.” 

The Posse Comitatus Act forbids federal troops to be deployed with police powers. Following Hurricane Katrina an effort to significantly weaken the Posse Comitatus Act  was initially successful, but the legal changes were subsequently overturned in 2008. The current language is the same originally adopted by Congress in 1878. 

The potential life-saving and order-restoring capacity represented by the CCMRF is widely recognized.  The use of active duty federal troops for this purpose is seen by some as a creeping militarization of the home front.

At yesterday’s hearing the Congressmen — of both political parties – kept coming back to “who’s in charge?”  About nineteen minutes into the hearing, Mr. Smith, the subcommittee chairman, interrupted an explanation of HSPD-5′s intricacies, asking, “Does anyone of those groups have the lead?” 

If there’s a real catastrophe, what’s the real chain-of-command? It is a good question.  The answers, of course, are variations on “Well, it depends.” 

As the hearing proceeded — maybe because of the provisional answers offered – the questions were increasingly directed to General Renuart.  The implicit assumption seemed to be: the man in uniform will be in charge.  Encouraging this impression is a principal reason why uniforms are worn.  

If the General is in charge, then who’s in charge of the General? The prepared testimony of each witness was constitutionally restrained: federal forces will be deployed at the request of Governors to support civil authorities. The  protocols of HSPD-5 and the National Response Framework will ensure effective collaboration across roles and responsibilities.

 But what about when local civil authority has been overwhelmed by the catastrophe?

About half way through the hearing Congressman Kline began his inquiry by stating, “I am still, sort of grappling – and I think all of us are at one level or another – with the fundamental question of who’s in charge.”  The Congressman then reviewed a variety of National Guard and DOD assets and asked, “When are these forces federal, when do they work for the state, when do they work for the Governor, when do they work for the General?”

The General responded, appropriately and accurately, well… it depends.

A bit later Congressman Miller, asked what happens, “if the Governor and the local officials don’t get it; they absolutely have  become overwhelmed — as they did with Katrina – and don’t make the call (to the President) quick  enough?”

There was a pregnant pause before the General responded.  “Well, Mr. Miller, I think  the President ultimately has a responsiblity for the nation to make a determination of the speed at which some event is unfolding.  That is not a NORTHCOM decision.  My role is to ensure that, if I’m asked, to be sure that I have all the pieces in place to be supportive.  So I would defer to the national leadership to make a policy decision as to the ability of an individual state. That’s really not mine to call.”

I expect the General’s answer is accurate… even in its  opacity.  Is it an appropriate answer? In terms of civil-military authority, certainly yes.  In terms of constitutional balance of powers? Probably not.

Funny how the Tenth Amendment can suddenly rise up as if from the dead:  “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

General Renuart is a practical man.  He wants to do his duty.  In a time of crisis he will be prepared to render protection and care.  How can we allow him to do so with confidence while preserving the practical benefits of local capacity and the constitutional protections of state sovereignty?

The hearing was rather chaste in exposing the Tenth Amendment issue, but the bare skin was there for all to see.  Whether titilating or horrifying probably depends on your taste.

Buried in the prepared testimony — never referenced in open session — was an interesting suggestion for how we might restore some constitutional  modesty and, even perhaps, some honest dignity.  More on this in a Friday post.

UPDATE:

A July 30 New York Times editorial entitled: The military is not the police.

November 2, 2007

DHS Publishes “Chemicals of Interest” and New Industry Regs

Filed under: Chemical Security — by Jonah Czerwinski on November 2, 2007

DHS today released an additional appendix to the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS). Section 550 of the DHS Appropriations Act of 2007 gives DHS the authority to regulate high risk chemical facilities. At risk facilities fall into one of three main categories:
• chemical manufacturing, storage and distribution facilities;
• petroleum refineries, and
• liquefied natural gas storage (peak shaving) facilities.

The CFATS is part of the growing library of what DHS calls Chemical-terrorism Vulnerability Information (CVI). Chemical-terrorism Vulnerability Information includes the following according to DHS documentation:

• Security Vulnerability Assessments (SVA);
• Site Security Plans (SSP);
• Documents relating to the Department’s review and approval of SVAs and SSPs, including Letters of Authorization, Letters of Approval, and responses to them;
• Written notices and other documents developed to comply with the interim final rule;
• Alternative Security Programs;
• Documents related to inspections and audits;
• Notices of deficiency;
• Records of training, exercises, and drills;
• Incidents and security breaches;
• Maintenance, calibration and testing of security equipment;
• Objections and appeals;
• Records required to be created and maintained by regulated facilities;
• Sensitive portions of orders, notices, or letters;
• Information developed pursuant to the Top-Screen process; and
• Other information designated as Chemical-terrorism Vulnerability Information by the Secretary.

Appendix A lists about 300 “chemicals of interest,” including common ones such as chlorine, propane, and anhydrous ammonia.  Possession of certain levels of these chemicals requires the submission of what DHS calls a “Top-Screen.” This is an online questionnaire that chemical facility owners and operators submit to DHS, which it uses to determine whether the facility presents a high level of security risk. The Top-Screen is part of the Chemical Security Assessment Tool (CSAT). More about it can be found here.

Three security concerns dictate whether a certain type and quantity of chemicals require a facility to complete the Top-Screen. They are:

• Release: quantities of toxic, flammable, or explosive chemicals that have the potential to create significant adverse consequences for human life or health if intentionally released or detonated.
• Theft or Diversion: chemicals that have the potential, if stolen or diverted, to be used as weapons or easily converted into weapons, in order to create significant adverse consequences for human life or health.
• Sabotage or Contamination: chemicals that, if mixed with other readily available materials, have the potential to create significant adverse consequences for human health or life.

Update:
Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection Bob Stephan will host a pen and pad media briefing on the release of Appendix A of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards at 2PM today at CBP Headquarters in the Commissioner’s Large Conference Room located at:
Ronald Reagan Building
1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC
OPEN PRESS