Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 4, 2013

Expanding or Diluting Our Preparedness Priorities

Today’s guest blogger is “Donald Quixote”  Don comments frequently on Homeland Security Watch.  He writes under what he likes to call his nom de guerre because his agency frowns on its employees posting material without agency approval. 

————-

The House Committee on Homeland Security recently passed the Medical Preparedness Allowable Use Act (HR 5997)/ (HR 1791) authorizing the expansion of the use of existing grant programs for enhancing medical preparedness, medical surge capacity and mass prophylaxis capabilities during a natural disaster or terrorist attack.  Reportedly, it does not furnish any additional funding, but provides the ability to leverage the Urban Area Security Initiative and State Homeland Security Grant Program.

The pending bill can be viewed from several different perspectives.  The optimist may view this initial accomplishment as Congress finally addressing a very serious threat of a chemical or biological attack that may be looming, or  – rather more likely — the threat of a serious novel pandemic illness.  The pessimist may view it as the continued, wider distribution of limited resources between numerous partners in the ever-vague world of homeland security (whatever that entails, but that is another conversation).  I tend to believe it is both.

According to a Los Angeles Times article, the 2009 H1N1  influenza virus killed 10 times more than previously estimated by the World Health Organization.  A study published in the journal PLOS Medicine estimated the number that died was 203,000.  Although the number appears quite small when compared to the current world population and the momentous number that perished during the H1N1 Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, it remains a relevant number, if accurate, as a warning indicator.

However, how many of us truly appreciate the conceivably massive cascading consequences of a serious novel pandemic threat?

Are MERS, SARS, H1N1, H5N1 and H7N9 warning shots over the bow or just natural occurrences that come and go over time without serious implications?

The topic of biosecurity is not new to this blog.  Mr. Bogis and Mr. Wolfe have identified numerous areas of interest regarding the funding and resources already appropriated for biosecurity and biodefense.  There have been valuable discussions and debates regarding the perceived and actual risks and returns on investment.  The practical value of the previous investments and effectiveness of the many programs shall remain the subject of debate until they are partially or fully tested by an incident or event.

In the realm of a serious novel pandemic illness, I controversially continue to argue that it could easily outrank a conventional terrorist attack as a current threat due to the possibly catastrophic consequences to our citizens, critical infrastructure and civil stability on a broader scale.

We can only ignore the low-probability\high-consequence biological attack or serious novel pandemic illness threat until it happens.  Unfortunately, there is a long history of ignoring this threat because of limited resources and impaired strategic vision.

The Medical Preparedness Allowable Use Act, if ultimately enacted, may affect some change in this area or at least spark interest in expanded medical preparedness.


 

 

 

September 5, 2013

Shaping the context: Syria and more

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Resilience,Strategy,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on September 5, 2013

Our options in Syria are, as far as I can see, all bad.  Any action or non-action involves chaotic possibilities — probabilities — well beyond confident prediction.

In our increasingly interconnected, interdependent, dynamic — and therefore complex — world this seems to be the one source of consistency on which we can depend:  Outcomes are uncertain.

There may even be a corollary:  The more confident one is of a specific outcome, the more likely the confidence is misplaced.

Even as our tools of observation, analysis and action become more powerful our capacity to accurately anticipate results seems to recede until — not unlike our oldest ancestors — we are left arguing analogies.

Is this Hitler’s Rhineland or Poland or Stalingrad?  1914 Serbia or 1938 Czechoslovakia?  Are we in the midst of a new Thirty Years War or merely the newest wrinkle in a 3000 year-old-struggle?  Is our best model a new Treaty of Westphalia or Ataturk’s solution or some sort of Ottoman consensus or expanded Concert of Europe?  Are we truly latter day Crusaders or closer to Pax Romana administrators (with our share of both Pilate’s and Pliny’s)? The historical comparisons are endless and treacherous.

I will add one more analogy which is less about a specific outcome — ultimate or ephemeral — than how context can be shaped.

A true story: Once upon a time long-ago, but no longer so far away, the Great King-of-Kings was challenged by a minor kinglet from the edge of the civilized world. Despite the overwhelming resources available to the King-of-Kings, prior encounters with the upstart had not ended well, costing the empire considerable lives, treasure and prestige.

When various political and diplomatic efforts failed and the provocations persisted, even increased, the King-of-Kings decided patient persistence required the reinforcement of other techniques.  Accordingly and with careful political deliberation, military planning and battlefield execution the King-of-Kings gathered all he needed at a time and place of his choosing.  Ancient sources disagree on details, yet all concur the balance of forces was at least 2-to-1 and credibly as much as 5-to-1.

But an unexpected oblique upended the established order.  The King-of-Kings was chased from the field of battle, his centuries-old empire imploding, and a whole new cultural reality emerging from this unexpected loss.

What the clearly weaker party could claim as comparative advantage was mobility, flexibility, curiosity, discipline, diversity, unity, speed, innovation, and considerable self-confidence.  These strengths were demonstrated on that battlefield 2344 years ago on October 1.  Even more important, the upstart’s culture demonstrated the same characteristics, long surviving the short life of its victorious king.

I don’t have an answer for what we should do in Syria.  But whatever we do — or don’t — and whatever the outcome here and abroad, I hope our choices will nurture the characteristics of this and many other upstarts across history.  These are the intellectual and spiritual foundations of resilience.

We will be challenged, sometimes horribly.  We will make bad choices, sometimes tragically. But our homeland will enjoy greater security the more we embrace mobility, flexibility, curiosity, discipline, diversity, unity, speed, innovation, and self-confidence.

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

January 10, 2013

What was, what is, and what will be

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on January 10, 2013

Earlier this week the World Economic Forum released its annual report: Global Risks 2013.

According to the WEF survey of 1000-plus “global experts”, over the next ten years the most serious risks by potential impact are:

  • Major systemic financial failure
  • Water supply crises
  • Chronic fiscal imbalances
  • Food shortage crises
  • Diffusion of weapons of mass destruction

Of these most consequential risks the expert survey — complemented by a series of workshops — found that water supplies and fiscal balance are already widely in crisis (What a surprise!). The risk of food shortages and systemic financial failure will increase as water and fiscal problems worsen. Increased diffusion of WMD almost seems simple in comparison.

Combined with the November release of Global Trends 2030 by our friends at the National Intelligence Council, we now have even more excuses for bad dreams.

In his preface to the report, Klaus Schwab, the founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF comments,

I think you will agree [the report] makes a compelling case for stronger cross-border collaboration among stakeholders from governments, business and civil society – a partnership with the purpose of building resilience to global risks. They also highlight the need for strengthening existing mechanisms to mitigate and manage risks, which today primarily exist at the national level. This means that while we can map and describe global risks, we cannot predict when and how they will manifest; therefore, building national resilience to global risks is of paramount importance.

The report offers suggestions related to definitions of resilience and good practice in resilience.

I was one of those contributing to the WEF survey and workshops. WEF does a great job of bringing together a broad mix of public and private policy makers, academics, and fellow-travelers. The report is helpful and I look forward to the follow-on work. The Davos Summit, January 23-27, focuses on “resilient dynamism” and will kick-off several important initiatives.

–+–

I paused while reading of the WEF report to take a call from the operations manager for a grocery chain in the New York metro area. I will do a case study on their Hurricane Sandy preparedness and response. One store on Staten Island was flooded under three feet of water. It reopened within a week. Another store within three blocks of the New Dorp Beach inundation zone — the deadly ground zero for Sandy — stayed open without interruption. There are a range of smart, heroic and almost miraculous tales.

There is also a very open, practical self-criticism in how the grocers are working to prepare for and adapt to the likelihood of something-worse-than-Sandy.

I perceive a yawning gap between the analysis and attitude encountered at the grocery chain and that revealed in the WEF report. It is a contrast often found between the theoretical and the operational.

The point is not that the operators are hubris-free and the theoreticians — including me — abide with such overabundant pride (though the thought does occur and recur). Rather, it seems to me, that this gap is where many of our vulnerabilities originate.

The WEF report (and many more) is in the future tense. These are issues we can reasonably anticipate will influence the operational environment for the next ten years or more.

Operational thinking and even planning is considerably more present tense. The possibilities of now — both opportunity and threat, strength and weakness — are at the heart of the operational worldview.

Past, present, and future are characteristics of English. Other linguistic systems focus much more on action being finished or unfinished. Any meaningful notion of homeland security will remain unfinished (and perhaps worse) until we can more effectively communicate across the operational-theoretical continuum.

–+–

Through me what was, what is, and what will be, are revealed. Through me strings sound in harmony, to song. My aim is certain, but an arrow truer than mine, has wounded my free heart! The whole world calls me the bringer of aid; medicine is my invention; my power is in healing.

Metamorphoses, Ovid: Book I:521-523, Apollo begging Daphne to yield to him. I realize that quoting a Latin poet, even in translation, will not help bridge the gap. But it is beautiful, is it not? The Latin is luscious. And doesn’t it evoke an image of homeland security begging for affection? A big part of the challenge is to respect the insight that exists across the continuum, learning how to fully engage different dialects.

October 25, 2012

The Presidential Debates: Substantial agreement on homeland security

The word “homeland” was used once,  the term “homeland security” not at all  in the three presidential debates.  But a close-reading of the transcripts does expose HS-related discussion.

Below are direct excerpts from the debate transcripts.  I have purposefully not identified who said what.  Where the candidates seem to mostly agree, I have only quoted one of them.  Occasionally a candidate asserted a difference that — at least to me — seemed either non-substantive or illusory.  I have not included these assertions.  There are subtle distinctions.  I have chosen excerpts that I hope bring these forward.

To me the distinctions — on these issues —  often run counter to each candidate’s stereotype. President Obama comes off tougher than the other side wants to admit, Governor Romney more reasonable than he is portrayed.  Debate posturing?  Meaningful insight?  My own eccentric tendency to see what is shared more than what divides?

FIRST DEBATE: THE FUNDAMENTALS

The first role of the federal government is to keep the American people safe. That’s its most basic function…

The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The role of government is to promote and protect the principles of those documents. First, life and liberty. We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people…

SECOND DEBATE: IMMIGRATION, DOMESTIC COUNTER-TERRORISM, AND RESILIENCE

Immigration

First of all, this is a nation of immigrants. We welcome people coming to this country as immigrants… I want our legal system to work better. I want it to be streamlined. I want it to be clearer. I don’t think you have to — shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to figure out how to get into this country legally. I also think that we should give visas to people — green cards, rather — to  people who graduate with skills that we need. People around the world with accredited degrees in science and math get a green card stapled to their diploma, come to the U.S. of A. We should make sure our legal system works.

Number two, we’re going to have to stop illegal immigration. There are 4 million people who are waiting in line to get here legally. Those who’ve come here illegally take their place… What I will do is I’ll put in place an employment verification system and make sure that employers that hire people who have come here illegally are sanctioned for doing so. I won’t put in place magnets for people coming here illegally. The kids of those that came here illegally, those kids, I think, should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States and military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident…

If we’re going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families. And that’s what we’ve done. And what I’ve also said is for young people who come here, brought here often times by their parents. Had gone to school here, pledged allegiance to the flag. Think of this as their country. Understand themselves as Americans in every way except having papers. And we should make sure that we give them a pathway to citizenship…

Domestic Counterterrorism (or Whole Community or gun control)

So my belief is that, (A), we have to enforce the laws we’ve already got, make sure that we’re keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill. We’ve done a much better job in terms of background checks, but we’ve got more to do when it comes to enforcement…

Weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don’t belong on our streets. And so what I’m trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally… Part of it is also looking at other sources of the violence… And so what can we do to intervene, to make sure that young people have opportunity; that our schools are working; that if there’s violence on the streets, that working with faith groups and law enforcement, we can catch it before it gets out of control…

And so what I want is a — is a comprehensive strategy. Part of it is seeing if we can get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. But part of it is also going deeper and seeing if we can get into these communities and making sure we catch violent impulses before they occur.

Resilience (?)

I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded.

THIRD DEBATE: COUNTERTERRORISM, CYBER, AND DRONES

International Counterterrorism

But we can’t kill our way out of this mess. We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the — the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is — it’s certainly not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 12 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America, long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism…

A group of Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the — the world reject these — these terrorists. And the answer they came up with was this: One, more economic development. We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment, and that of our friends, we should coordinate it to make sure that we — we push back and give them more economic development. Number two, better education. Number three, gender equality. Number four, the rule of law. We have to help these nations create civil societies…

The other thing that we have to do is recognize that we can’t continue to do nation building in these regions. Part of American leadership is making sure that we’re doing nation building here at home. That will help us maintain the kind of American leadership that we need…

We make decisions today… that will confront challenges we can’t imagine. In the 2000 debates, there was no mention of terrorism, for instance. And a year later, 9/11 happened. So, we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty…

Cybersecurity

We need to be thinking about cyber security. We need to be talking about space…

International Counterterrorism (Again)

Pakistan is important to the region, to the world and to us, because Pakistan has 100 nuclear warheads and they’re rushing to build a lot more. They’ll have more than Great Britain sometime in the — in the relatively near future. They also have the Haqqani Network and the Taliban existent within their country. And so a Pakistan that falls apart, becomes a failed state, would be of extraordinary danger to Afghanistan and to us. And so we’re going to have to remain helpful in encouraging Pakistan to move towards a more stable government and rebuild the relationship with us. And that means that our aid that we provide to Pakistan is going to have to be conditioned upon certain benchmarks being met…

Drones

We should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world.

International Counterterrorism (Again)

There’s no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed. But there are always going to be elements in these countries that potentially threaten the United States. And we want to shrink those groups and those networks and we can do that.  But we’re always also going to have to maintain vigilance when it comes to terrorist activities. The truth, though, is that Al Qaeda is much weaker than it was…and they don’t have the same capacities to attack the U.S. homeland and our allies as they did four years ago.

I expect partisans of each candidate will complain I have obscured important differences.   In my judgment a narcissism of small differences is epidemic.   I have no interest in abetting the fever.  More interesting to me is — for good or bad — the considerable consensus that is articulated.

June 8, 2012

Homeland security as a national monomyth

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on June 8, 2012

OR: SECURITY IS PRECIOUS, IT IS ALSO MADDENINGLY ELUSIVE

I have proposed that homeland security is, itself, the consequence of a catastrophe.  Further, I have suggested homeland security is a consequence that — among other things — reinforces and extends the catastrophic nature of the original event. For good and bad homeland security contributes to marking a catastrophic before and after.

The uncanny, even surreal success of the al-Qaeda plot was the crux of this catastrophe.   If the Pentagon alone had been hit, would our (a populist “our”) response have been as it was?  With both towers hit and casualties as high, if the structures had remained standing would our sense-of-devastation have been the same?

It was the televised — “you are there” — impact of not one but both towers collapsing before our collective eyes that ensured an awful day was widely experienced as little less than apocalyptic.  Pennsylvania and the Pentagon were dreadful subplots to the ghastly spectacle in New York.

I don’t know how to test it, but even the shared shock of Pearl Harbor may not have been as profound as that of 9/11.   Many were aware of the Japanese threat.  The conflict in China was big news, the European war well-known context. But eleven years ago most were unaware of AQ, even after the attacks on the USS Cole and the East African embassies.  For the vast majority of Americans, this terrorist threat might as well have emerged from Mars.

This was the genesis of homeland security.  Such a beginning matters.

Most of us expected — certainly I did — follow-on attacks.  Given the creative audacity of the “first” attacks anything seemed possible.   The following is from Ashton B. Carter, currently Deputy Secretary of Defense, writing in Countering Terrorism (2003):

The varieties of extremism that can spawn catastrophic terrorism  seem limitless… What is clear is that war-scale destructive power is becoming increasingly available as technology advances. The same advances heighten the complexity and interconnectedness of civilization, making society more vulnerable at the same time as technology deliver to small groups destructive powers that were formerly the monopoly of states. (Page 18)

According to a 2010 survey, 53 percent of Americans expect a terrorist attack using a nuclear device.  The President is evidently among this majority.  Having experienced the nearly unimaginable on 9/11, we can easily imagine much worse.

Since 9/11 there has been no new use or known attempted use of war-scale destructive power.  Yet many — probably most — Americans perceive that a small number of evil men present a clear, present, and existential threat to the United States.  This is the sustaining justification for homeland security.  This is the continuing cascade of catastrophe.

We talk and write about risk-informed decision making.  But our core homeland security narrative is not so subtle.

Nine weeks after 9/11 the first Harry Potter movie was released.  It was the highest grossing film of the year. The 2001 Christmas season saw the first Lord of the Rings movie open to crowds only a bit smaller than those for Harry.  The righteous anger of September was already predisposed to stark distinctions of good and evil.  Popular culture readily reinforced these tendencies.

But… as with the fictional Harry and Frodo, the most significant struggle has been internal.  Do not misunderstand, the external threat is real.  The existential challenge, though, is much more a matter of our national sense-of-self.  Are we brave, generous and loving or are we fearful, greedy, and vengeful?  The gravest question is not if we will defeat the enemy, but what this fight will make of us?

Homeland security has become our Hogwarts, our Middle-earth: a set of problems with which we are crafting our national character.  (“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”  J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets via the character Albus Dumbledore)

In 1998 Ashton Carter served as co-chair of the “Catastrophic Terrorism Study Group.”  He and his co-authors prophesied:

A successful attack with weapons of mass destruction could certainly take thousands, or tens of thousands, of lives. If the device that exploded in 1993 under the World Trade Center had been nuclear, or had effectively dispersed a deadly pathogen, the resulting horror and chaos would have exceeded our ability to describe it. Such an act of catastrophic terrorism would be a watershed event in American history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented in peacetime and undermine America’s fundamental sense of security, as did the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949. Like Pearl Harbor, this event would divide our past and future into a before and after. The United States might respond with draconian measures, scaling back civil liberties, allowing wider surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and use of deadly force. More violence could follow, either further terrorist attacks or U.S. counterattacks. (Foreign Affairs,  November/December 1998)

They failed to predict weaponized passenger jets, but the rest sounds accurate to me.  Please notice the most catastrophic consequences are self-inflicted.

The Lord of the Rings transpires over two years, the Harry Potter series in seven.  We are well into our second decade since 9/11.  By now our fictional heroes had  engaged their demons, returned home, and had earned the freedom to live fully.  We are not there.  The catastrophe is still unfolding.  Crucial choices still confront us.  We are unfinished.  We are unresolved.  We have not yet abandoned the “self-generated double-monster” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell).

Homeland security is double-minded, as Harry could so often be; as Frodo was even in his final struggle with Gollum at the Crack of Doom.

Homeland security problems are often as intimate as they are important.  Who do we trust? Why? What are our trials?  What are our temptations? Where are we most vulnerable?  To whom are we loyal?  What and whom are we prepared to betray? What is the call that would prompt betrayal?  Precisely because these are problems of self-identity and relationship they can be especially treacherous.

Our double-mindedness will be resolved.  When and how are pending.  I wish I was more certain of a happy ending.

Next week: Homeland security on the road of trials

–+–

This is the second in a series of posts on the relationship of homeland security to catastrophe (here’s a link to the first).  About ten posts on catastrophe are expected to be followed by another ten on resilience and another ten on civil liberties.  But this series is open, exploratory, and susceptible to tangents.  There were great comments on last week’s post that I am still thinking through.  This post is not especially responsive to particular comments, but I promise future posts will try to seriously engage the important issues you raised.  Please join in with your questions, concerns, and comments.

 

March 30, 2012

Need to know, duty to share, and — Hey, is anyone paying attention?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Media,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on March 30, 2012

Over the last couple of years a FEMA grant supported a locally driven process to anticipate a possible nuclear detonation in the nation’s capital.  I was peripherally involved in the local process.

On March 14 the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists posted a principal document emerging from this local effort. (See: http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/dhs/fema/ncr.pdf)

I commend the report to you.  In my judgment it’s a fine piece of policy-and-strategy oriented science.

Since the document was posted by the FAS it has been the focus of an Associated Press piece and several other media mentions.

“Have you seen the leak?” was the first line of several emails I received after the AP story appeared. As a “leak” the document suddenly had a previously unrecognized appeal.

When the document was initially completed in autumn 2011 it was simply a technical report — generated by a National Laboratory under a FEMA grant — but otherwise unofficial.    It was conceived by local leadership to provide an empirical and expert-informed basis for a process of  whole community engagement.  Public information and education regarding the IND issue had been a priority from very early in the process.  This original version of the report was distributed to the National Capital Region planning community, including me.

Sometime in December a decision emerged from FEMA to create an official version of the  document designated as For Official Use Only (FOUO).  This new version superseded the original document.  If DHS guidance on application of FOUO exists, I have not seen it.  In my experience FOUO means to know who’s getting the document and be sure there’s some good cause for that person to get the document.

While this is a very low level of “security”, there was still push-back to the designation from the response planning community. Local leaders argued they spent grant money on the report with an explicit expectation it would not be classified.  My favorite push-back quoted at length from a December 2 speech by Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute:

In national security there is a culture of confidentiality, the need to protect the nation’s most sensitive information.  In homeland security there’s an expectation of transparency:  it’s not a need to know, it’s a duty to share, it’s an expectation to share. In national security there’s unity of command.  In homeland security, it’s a unity of effort.  It’s a different model.  It’s a different model.  And we need to understand the things that we deal with from the differences that that model represents. (The underline appeared in the original push-back.)

Despite local requests — and appeals to higher authority — the FOUO revision stuck.

Several weeks before there was even a rumor of FOUO, I was using the original technical report and other materials in an effort to entice some long-form journalism focusing on the issues involved.  There was not even a nibble.

Maybe it was my angle.   For me one of  the most interesting issues exposed by the report is how public preparedness is fundamental to surviving any really bad day.  Whether the cause is earthquake, hurricane, nuclear detonation or whatever, our best science is finding public readiness and resilience before an event largely determines the success (or not) of response and recovery afterwards.

In the particular case of an IND in DC, tens-of-thousands will survive and potentially thrive if they don’t immediately try (and probably fail) to evacuate and instead shelter-in-place.  The technical report made this clear.  So does the original AP report.

Most of the headlines and much of the commentary since have neglected this aspect of the report.  But at least one media outlet led with this angle.  The headline in the Arlington (VA) Sun-Gazette was: Local Officials: Report Confirms Nuclear Attack Survivable If Right Steps Are Taken.

A new federal report looking at a low-grade nuclear explosion’s impact across the metropolitan area provides better insight on how to react and survive such an incident, county officials said.

For the most part, the mantra of public-safety officials boils down to: Shelter in place until the danger passes.

“If you’re outdoors, get indoors. If you’re indoors, stay indoors,” said Jack Brown, director of Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management. “The public needs to resist the urge to go outside, get in their cars and get on the roads – the last thing we want the public to do is to be outside. Buildings do provide a lot of buffer.”

Seems to me a helpful message.  Glad it’s gotten a bit more attention because of reports on the report.

Here’s a guess, the report was news-worthy — it appeared in dozens of the nation’s principal news outlets —  for two reasons: 1) it was a government report about something very bad and 2) there was a slight suggestion the government was trying to keep the report secret.  As such the report fit two of the core narratives of journalism: “the king has announced” and “the king is corrupt.”   These two story-lines have been the top of the news for about two centuries.

Thank goodness for the FOUO designation.   Without that, no one may have noticed at all.

February 27, 2012

Nuclear blast simulator: NUKEMAP

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,WMD — by Arnold Bogis on February 27, 2012

Recently the web saw the emergence of a new online nuclear detonation simulator: NUKEMAP.

Created by Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at the American Institute of Physics and blogger at “Restricted Data The Nuclear Secrecy Blog,” this simulator is the best example of an admittedly small class of apps. It allows one to pick the target and yield of the device, either through drop down boxes or by entering unique values.  For the sake of simplicity, it defaults with an idealized air burst which eliminates the computational messiness of modeling the influence of unique geography and weather.

So this isn’t your National Lab/FEMA 3-D model tailored to individual cityscapes.  But it gives you a general idea about the varying effects of different sizes of nuclear weapons.

The features, in Alex’s own words:

  • Easily draggable target marker (which has an adorable little atom on it)!
  • Bright, stomach-churning colors indicating major negative effects of atomic detonations!
  • Effects described include zones of 500 rem exposure, major overpressures, and fire! Plus, the legend breaks these down into easy-to-understand descriptions of what they mean for your average person caught inside of them.
  • Lots of pre-sets for both places to drop them (I didn’t want to discriminate) and yields of historical weapons! It has never been easier to put a 50Mt H-bomb on the Eiffel Tower.
  • Automatically tries to drop the bomb on wherever Google thinks you are accessing the Internet from (based on your IP address)!
  • You can link to specific detonations and send them to your friends to enjoy forever!
  • Automatic zooming to make sure that all of a given nuke’s effects fit within the view window! (This can be disabled.)
  • More historically contextualized than your average web app!

While obviously trying to inject some levity in the most serious of subjects, among Alex’s stated goals for this project was to visually explain the difference between fission and fusion weapons effects:

I have in the past made maps of this sort for use in teaching, when I want to emphasize how “impressive” the first hydrogen bomb was when compared to the first atomic bombs. If you dropped a Fat Man-style bomb onto downtown Boston, the results wouldn’t be pretty, but the effects would be limited to the immediate area surrounding the peninsula, primarily. (In other words, I would tell the students, Harvard is probably not too bad off, fallout excepting, but MIT is completely fried.) Do the same thing with an Ivy Mike-sized bomb and you’ve set houses on fire all the way out to Concord (a visual argument, when done with appropriate build-up and theatricality, that never failed to result in a horrified gasp from the auditorium of undergrads). It becomes quite clear why many of the atomic scientists of the day considered H-bombs to be exclusively genocidal weapons.

For homeland security planners what this simulator makes vivid is how the threat has changed since the end of the Cold War. Multiple Soviet warheads in the hundred kiloton or megaton range is a totally different story than a single nuclear terrorist device around the size of the Hiroshima bomb or even lower.  While any local and state response will be immediately overwhelmed, the current threats are still national  catastrophes than can and should be planned for at a regional level.

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.

 

January 5, 2012

Defense strategy and homeland security

Earlier today the President signed out and the Secretary of Defense released new strategic guidance for the Department of Defense. Following are my quick-takes on those aspects of the document  most closely related to homeland security.

Page 1:

The demise of Osama bin Laden and the capturing or killing of many other senior al-Qa?’ida  leaders have rendered the group far less capable. However, al-Qa?’ida and its affiliates remain active in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. More broadly,violent extremists will continue to threaten U.S. interests, allies, partners, and the homeland.The primary loci of these threats are South Asia and the Middle East. With the diffusion of destructive technology, these extremists have the potential to pose catastrophic threats thatcould directly affect our security and prosperity. For the foreseeable future, the UnitedStates will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats by monitoring theactivities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establishcontrol over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary.

Page 2:

In the Middle East, the Arab Awakening presents both strategic opportunities and challenges. Regime changes, as well as tensions within and among states under pressure toreform, introduce uncertainty for the future. But they also may result in governments that,over the long term, are more responsive to the legitimate aspirations of their people, and aremore stable and reliable partners of the United States.Our defense efforts in the Middle East will be aimed at countering violent extremists anddestabilizing threats, as well as upholding our commitment to allies and partner states.

Page 3:

To enable economic growth and commerce, America, working in conjunction with allies and partners around the world, will seek to protect freedom of access throughout the globalcommons ?– those areas beyond national jurisdiction that constitute the vital connective tissue of the international system. Global security and prosperity are increasingly dependent on the free flow of goods shipped by air or sea. State and non-state actors pose potential threats to access in the global commons, whether through opposition to existing norms orother anti-access approaches. Both state and non-state actors possess the capability and intent to conduct cyber espionage and, potentially, cyber attacks on the United States, with possible severe effects on both our military operations and our homeland. Growth in the number of space-faring nations is also leading to an increasingly congested and contested space environment, threatening safety and security. The United States will continue to lead global efforts with capable allies and partners to assure access to and use of the global commons, both by strengthening international norms of responsible behavior and by maintaining relevant and interoperable military capabilities.

Page 4:

Acting in concert with other means of national power, U.S. military forces must continue to hold al-Qa?’ida and its affiliates and adherents under constant pressure, wherever they may be. Achieving our core goal of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qa?’ida and preventing Afghanistan from everbeing a safe haven again will be central to this effort. As U.S. forces draw down in Afghanistan, our global counter terrorism efforts will become more widely distributedand will be characterized by a mix of direct action and security force assistance. Reflecting lessons learned of the past decade, we will continue to build and sustain tailored capabilities appropriate for counter terrorism and irregular warfare. We will also remain vigilant to threats posed by other designated terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah.

Page 5:

Accordingly, DoD will continue to work with domestic and international allies and partners and invest in advanced capabilities to defend its networks, operational capability, and resiliency in cyberspace and space….

U.S. forces willcontinue to defend U.S. territory from direct attack by state and non-state actors. We willalso come to the assistance of domestic civil authorities in the event such defense fails or in case of natural disasters, potentially in response to a very significant or even catastrophic event. Homeland defense and support to civil authorities require strong,steady?–state force readiness, to include a robust missile defense capability. Threats to the homeland may be highest when U.S. forces are engaged in conflict with an adversary abroad.

Page 6:

The nation has frequently called upon its Armed Forces to respond to a range of situations that threaten the safety and well-being of its citizens and those of other countries. U.S. forces possess rapidly deployable capabilities, including airlift and sealift, surveillance, medical evacuation and care, and communications that can be invaluable in supplementing lead relief agencies, by extending aid to victims of natural or man-made disasters, both at home and abroad. DoD will continue to develop joint doctrine and military response options to prevent and, if necessary, respond to mass atrocities. U.S. forces will also remain capable of conducting non-combatant evacuation operations for American citizens overseas on an emergency basis.

You may see more.   The document includes considerable attention to WMD and cyber threats not excerpted above.

October 31, 2011

Test anthrax vaccine on children: A bad biodefense policy idea

Filed under: Biosecurity,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on October 31, 2011

I was surprised, last week, to see this story in the Washington Post about the efforts of a working group of the National Biodefense Science Board. Seems that, back in April, the board decided to examine whether children should receive the standard anthrax vaccine in the event of a wide-area anthrax attack on the nation. Although it’s not explained well in the story, it is assumed that this would be a post-treatment administered under emergency matters after an attack, rather than as a pre-treatment.

“At the end of the day, do we want to wait for an attack and give it to millions and millions of children and collect data at that time?” said Daniel B. Fagbuyi of Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, who chaired the group. “Or do we want to say: ‘How do we best protect our children?’ We can take care of Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle and Auntie. But right now, we have nothing for the children.”

Yes, oh who will think of the children? As the article explains, the vaccine has been tested for safety for the military, but it doesn’t explain that the vaccine’s efficacy is sometimes in question. Critics of the vaccine note that it hasn’t been tested against humans who have been exposed to a weaponized form of anthrax. And that’s true. There have been animal models that show the airborne vaccine should be both safe and efficacious for humans. And all of our researchers and veterinarians who work with anthrax use the vaccine, without any losses. Both the airborne vaccine and the natural form of vaccine work in the same way on the human body. So we’re pretty sure it’s a very good vaccine.

But back to the children. Medical experts and emergency responders have always been concerned about the “sensitive population” and how they are treated in the event of an emergency. Yes, it’s possible that an anthrax vaccine developed for adults might be too powerful for children or have detrimental side effects. We don’t know. But the chance of a wide-area anthrax attack affecting thousands, let alone “millions and millions of children,” is almost zero. Close enough to zero to not worry about it.

Except for this National Biodefense Science Board.  They decided, on a vote of 12-1, that in fact, we do need to have the vaccine tested on children in order to prepare for that day that is “not a matter of if, but when.”

“We need to know more about the safety and immunogenicity of the vaccine as we develop plans to use the vaccine on a large number of children in the event of a bioterrorist’s attack,” said Ruth L. Berkelman of Emory University, a panel member.

Now these are smart people. I don’t doubt their sincerity or intelligence. I do question their common sense and rationality. The absolute possibility of a transnational terrorist attack involving kilograms of anthrax to cause such an event are just insignificant compared to the storm of controversy and outcry if the US government starts testing the anthrax vaccine on kids.

It doesn’t matter if the side effects of the anthrax vaccine are far less severe than nearly any other vaccine. It doesn’t matter if the U.S. government has been using this vaccine for over a decade and has literally millions of health records to study. The critics will argue that the government hasn’t proven the vaccine’s efficacy for adults, let alone children. And they’d be right, technically; but it still works. This is a lousy argument.

The recommendation to test the vaccine for use on children is just wrong.

Any sensible mayor or governor would suggest that the appropriate risk-management approach would be to plan and resource for the widespread use of Cipro or other antibiotics on the population, to include children and other sensitive population types, as a first course of action. And then if, and only if, an actual anthrax attack occurred, the parents would be asked if they want to take the chance on the vaccine – and sign a release form for its use. It needs to be explained that this is a post-treatment, and without its use, the affected patient may die a very horrible and sudden death. This testing is unnecessary because the scenario too remotely theoretical.

It’s really that simple. How our community responds to bioterrorism is too important to be left to the doctors. Let’s get some public policy analysts involved and make better decisions.

 

October 18, 2011

Flunk the Graders, Not the Country

Filed under: Biosecurity,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on October 18, 2011

Last week, former Senators Bob Graham (D-FL) and Jim Talent (R-MO) released an assessment of the U.S. government’s preparedness for a biological terrorism event. The timing of its release, so near to the Hollywood drama “Contagion,” was not an accident. They wanted a reaction based on fear of a fictional global outbreak of a super-disease. Similar to their past report cards, this assessment was not a good news story.

“Today we face the very real possibility that outbreaks of disease — naturally occurring or man-made — can change the very nature of America,” the report concludes. Technology is also making it easier for terrorists to create deadly mischief, the report says.

A small team of individuals with graduate-level training and readily available equipment “could produce the type of bio-weapons created by nation-states in the 1960s,” the report warns.
—————
The center stressed that one key to improving the nation’s preparedness is leadership.

“We have recommended that there should be someone in the federal government who has (bioterrorism preparedness) as their sole responsibility,” Graham said. “That someone should be an individual who has the capability to direct and influence actions by the multiplicity of agencies that are involved and provide leadership to non-federal entities.”

The office of the vice president would be an appropriate spot for that job, Graham suggested.

Funny thing, former Vice President Dick Cheney and his advisor “Scooter” Libby were the original proponents for pushing a significant biodefense strategy for the United States, a strategy that has put about $6 billion per year into the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, and Defense Department for the past ten years. The fact that this biodefense strategy has failed to protect the United States from a range of biological agents, due to lack of oversight, poorly chosen goals, and limited resources, doesn’t seem to faze Graham and Talent from suggesting putting that office in charge again.

The report card can be found at the former senators’ new digs, the “Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center” or WMD Center for short – which ironically, doesn’t address WMDs, just biological terrorism. I don’t understand why they didn’t call it the “Bioterrorism Center” – it would have been more honest. But I suppose they miss all the attention given to them in their role leading the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism.

This report card gives the U.S. government 15 “Fs”, 15 “Ds”, and no “As” in its assessment of both small- and large-scale biological terrorist incidents.

The executive summary cautions the reader to view each grade on its own:

“it should not, however, be interpreted by calculating a grade-point average (GPA).”

You know, I used to tell my mother that when I brought home my report cards from junior high school, but she didn’t seem to view it that way.

It’s a strange assessment, one that seems to ignore the development of a National Biosurveillance Integration Center and the nation-wide Laboratory Response Network to give the nation a “D” for biosurveillance preparedness.

Not prepared enough, the report says, but “promising.”

Really? I thought a “C” would have been acceptable for “promising.” The way they assess the diagnostics and reporting process, you’d think that they were reporting about some third-world nation instead of the nation with the largest and most expensive health care system in the world.

Amazingly, the report says that it is “unclear” whether Project BioWatch, with its air samplers in 30+ cities, is worth the long term financial investment required to protect the nation.

Clearly it is not a sustainable program to expand to other cities, and the much vaunted “Gen III” detector has been in testing for some time. It’s not going to be cheap, just like DHS’s attempts to field next-generation radiological monitors in its “Global Nuclear Detection Architecture.” Are they trying to protect DHS’s S&T Directorate, which appears heading for significant budget cuts?

The report’s assessment on attribution capabilities is riddled with carefully parsed definitions to justify the failing grade that it provides the government. There are a few direct statements, but too many “probably” and “unknown” statements here for my taste.

Again, I am not sure why there is a National Bioforensics Center at Fort Detrick, one that includes participation from the FBI, DHHS, and DoD, but I imagine that it doesn’t deserve the charges that this report lays out.

The report’s assessors don’t seem to take into account the billions of dollars that DHHS is prepared to provide in the development of “private-public partnerships” for two new vaccine development centers. Yes, it will take a few years to build the centers and for the FDA to approve them, but still, not good enough to address a large-scale (multiple cities) outbreak. Yes, our past successes with pandemic disease outbreaks must have been flukes.

You can make up your own minds. From what I see, this is not an honest assessment of what the nation’s capability is to prepare for and respond to a bioterrorism incident. We are intended to overreact to this “lack” of preparedness because the report suggests bioterrorism is so easy. The report actually suggests that the success of Bruce Ivin in 2001, releasing his letters filled with anthrax, means that any general terrorist out there can do the same.

Yes, a man with more than 20 years experience working with anthrax on a regular basis in a well-prepared government lab; just the same as the man on the street. Really.

Fortunately, no one appears to be paying much attention to these Cassandras. They predicted in 2008 that there would be a bioterrorism incident prior to 2013. That’s only two years away. When this date comes and goes without such an incident, maybe we can shame them into retirement. We really don’t need these amateur-hour scare tactics. We have more important things to do with the billions of dollars poured into this money sink.

 

October 10, 2011

Anthrax Uncertainty

Filed under: Biosecurity,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Arnold Bogis on October 10, 2011

An interesting article in today’s New York Times casts additional uncertainty regarding the true perpetrator of the anthrax attacks:

A decade after wisps of anthrax sent through the mail killed 5 people, sickened 17 others and terrorized the nation, biologists and chemists still disagree on whether federal investigators got the right man and whether the F.B.I.’s long inquiry brushed aside important clues.

Now, three scientists argue that distinctive chemicals found in the dried anthrax spores — including the unexpected presence of tin — point to a high degree of manufacturing skill, contrary to federal reassurances that the attack germs were unsophisticated. The scientists make their case in a coming issue of the Journal of Bioterrorism & Biodefense.

I do not have sufficient knowledge in biology or chemistry to provide an opinion on the veracity of these claims.  What I find interesting is that there is serious concern that the perpetrator(s) of biological attack may still be unknown after so many years.

The new paper raises the prospect — for the first time in a serious scientific forum — that the Army biodefense expert identified by the F.B.I. as the perpetrator, Bruce E. Ivins, had help in obtaining his germ weapons or conceivably was innocent of the crime.

Please read the article itself for details regarding conflicting explanations for substances (tin and silicon) found in the anthrax and the reasons they might point to a different conclusion than the one at which the F.B.I. arrived.  What I find interesting from a homeland security perspective is that the anthrax mailings likely rank in the top five of all domestic terrorist incidents and are the only ones still surrounded by so much uncertainty.  This is not a conspiratorial take on the event (a la Truthers) or a reflexive “blame Al Qaeda” response (which would not be so surprising given their perceived presence at almost every major event in the world these days), but serious scientific doubt concerning the evidence and conclusions.

Is this because of the particular facts regarding this case–a difficult to obtain but deadly substance utilized in a sub-optimal manner (if the desire was mass fatalities) with little indication of motivation or goal?

Or a harbinger of the general issues that will surround further terrorist or criminal utilization of biological materials that will be difficult to trace for goals that may or may not be publicly announced?

A one off or an event that revealed a potential framing of the risk of biological terrorism?

Update: I had no idea when I was writing this post that PBS’ Frontline was opening their new season with an investigation of the anthrax attacks.  I caught most of the episode and it includes a lot of interesting details.  You can review their collected wealth of additional information (and I believe eventually watch the entire episode) at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/anthrax-files/

September 27, 2011

Explaining the Absence of Nuclear Terrorism

Filed under: WMD — by Alan Wolfe on September 27, 2011

As we continue to discuss the possibility of WMD terrorism, there always seems to be those nuclear weapons analysts who just cannot fathom how our civilization has not seen a nuclear terrorist incident yet.

We’ve had nuclear weapons around for more than 60 years now, we’ve had too many stories about missing or unaccounted for nuclear material, and yet no “boom.”

Thomas Schelling, famed game theorist and defense analyst, wants to know why.

In 1982 I published an article that began, “Sometime in the 1980’s an organization that is not a national government may acquire a few nuclear weapons. If not in the 1980’s, then in the 1990’s.”

I hedged about the 80’s but sounded pretty firm about the 90’s. It’s now the 2010’s, twenty-nine years later, and there has been no nuclear terrorism nor any acquisition of such weapons by any terrorist organization that we know of; and I think we’d know by now. I don’t know of anyone—and I knew many colleagues knowledgeable on the subject—who thought my expectations outlandish. Something needs to be explained!

Yes, it’s only a question of when, not if – and yet, and yet… the “when” has never arrived.

I am of the firm belief that it isn’t a question of when, but rather if a terrorist group could ever obtain enough fissile material, construct a bomb, and successfully hold a government hostage to its demands. There are more than a few federal agencies in the U.S. government looking for signs of any sub-state group with ambitions of grandeur – that is to say, those groups who have successfully avoided being the target of Predator drones and CIA-paid turncoats.

The media and those journalist bloggers who report issues related to nuclear terrorism are not particularly helpful in understanding this phenomenon. They’d rather sensationalize stories like this GAO report that says the U.S. government is unable to fully account for U.S. nuclear material overseas that has been given to partner nations for peaceful civilian use. If there were no specific reports stipulated in the partner agreement, and there has been no voluntary release of any information, well, then, the nuclear material might be anywhere! For all we know, there are thousands of kilograms of plutonium in some evil group’s lair, as we speak!

Or these “unaccounted” amounts of nuclear material might be sitting in reactors in Germany, France, Japan, India, Norway, perfectly safe and secure. You just don’t know, which is what has Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons analyst at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, so concerned.

“It’s amazing how completely cavalier the Department of Energy has been at tracking this. They’ve got nobody who worries about this on a day-to-day basis. … The old way of doing business was: You bought it. We have some rights, but it’s fundamentally not our problem.  Now, things are different.”

I’m thinking that they do in fact worry about this quite often. It’s not as if our government casually handed off nuclear material for other countries without any discussion, without any care as to what our partner nations did with it. Every country worries about nuclear terrorism. Every country with a nuclear reactor worries about a Fukushima incident. These are not casual issues. The only thing that is different today is the level of paranoia within the United States that something wicked this way comes, in the form of a terrorist-delivered nuclear weapon. So of course the solution has to be more control, more visibility over every shard of nuclear material out there. No one can be trusted to secure this material without our inspections and approval. If the U.S. government controls every aspect and can see everywhere on the globe with real-time intelligence, then we will be safe.

Except that no one can really afford that kind of omnipresence.

The Republicans in the Congress want to slash the Department of Energy’s nonproliferation funds, not increase it. They’d rather fund the intelligence agencies and US Special Operations Command with billions of dollars every year in an effort to monitor and interdict illegal movements of nuclear material. And that is one course of action, using military “hard power” instead of diplomatic “soft power.” You do what you can with the funds and authorities available. But in the end, as Dr. Schelling notes, there’s still no earth-shattering “kaboom” from a nuclear terrorist incident.

The media and journalist bloggers want to get your attention, they want gains in readership every month. They’re not interested, these days, in understanding exactly why Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) asked the GAO for this report.  Was he really worried about nuclear terrorism, or was he just trying to regain Department of Energy (DoE) funds that were slashed in earlier federal budgets? The GAO is not saying that fissile material is loose on the black market. All it is saying is that the Department of Energy could do a better job monitoring other nations’ holdings of U.S. nuclear materials. That’s all.

And, in fact, DoE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the State Department all disagree with the report’s recommendations, stating (in short) that the situation is well in hand. That’s not uncommon. The tone of the Jeffrey Lewis blog post, in particular, wants you to believe that there could be “enough material to make dozens of nuclear weapons” out there. That kind of sensationalistic reporting isn’t uncommon, either. But we professionals who actually want to do something about homeland security have to see past this sloppy writing and understand what’s really going on, if we are to make the best use of limited resources against the most compelling threats out there.

 

August 30, 2011

Increases in High Tech Aren’t Creating More WMDs

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on August 30, 2011

There’s a popular meme going around the defense and homeland security communities these days.

It’s been popular to note that the growth of the global economy – being able to buy almost anything from anywhere in the world – combined with the spread of science and technology to common laypersons has resulted in an increased threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction(WMD). There hasn’t been any specific terrorist group that has demonstrated this to be true, but people worry. In a time when the number of nations researching nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons is (at worst) remaining steady and in some cases, going down, the Very Serious People insist that this is no time to let up one’s guard.

This is not a new argument.

Scientists and engineers who work in the nuclear technologies field, along with arms control advocates  and some defense analysts, have been predicting that terrorists could build their own nuclear weapon since at least the 1970s.

Once the general public understood the basics of how certain uranium and plutonium isotopes acted when a critical mass was created, certainly any aspiring, bright engineer could explain how to build a nuclear bomb. Well, there was that one critical issue about actually obtaining the fissile material required for the bomb, but that’s just a detail, right? Or those terrorists would steal a bomb from a poorly guarded government facility, just like in any one of dozens of Hollywood movies, television dramas, or best-selling fiction novels.

William Broad of the New York Times has highlighted this fear in a recent article that addressed advances in laser technology that enables a new process by which one enriches uranium for the purposes of creating nuclear fuel for reactors.

But wait! If General Electrics, a multi-billion dollar corporation that has invested years of research into this field, can create a production plant that uses lasers to quickly enrich uranium, isn’t it likely that terrorists will soon be buying lasers and developing fissile-grade uranium in their garages?

“We’re on the verge of a new route to the bomb,” said Frank N. von Hippel, a nuclear physicist who advised President Bill Clinton and now teaches at Princeton. “We should have learned enough by now to do an assessment before we let this kind of thing out.”

And of course, this kind of doomsday mentality is not limited to nuclear technology.

Those watching the biotechnology revolution are as equally depressed about the possibility that terrorists could use advances in life sciences to turn benign organisms into pandemic disease outbreaks.

Yes, non-state actors could develop genetically-altered diseases that will target their enemies, and but spare the faithful. Surely the SARS epidemic, spread of HIV, and H1N1 attacks have shown everyone how vulnerable we are to the dangers of biology. You might be surprised by how many hits you can get on  Google with the terms “biotechnology and bioterrorism.” It’s a popular title.  This report’s authors warn: “Even as legitimate biomedical researchers develop defences against biological pathogens, bad actors could in turn engineer countermeasures in a kind of directed version of the way natural pathogens evolve resistance to anti-microbial drugs.

And even the chemical industry isn’t safe anymore, despite decades of regulation and oversight.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), responsible for overseeing the elimination of chemical weapons owned by a handful of nations, is concerned that it’s not going to have a job after 2017. But wait!

The growth of the chemical industry, spurred by the economic growth of developing nations, creates the possibility that chemicals used as precursors for chemical warfare agents may be available to non-state actors. New discoveries in science and technological equipment allow scientists to continue to blur the difference between biology and chemistry.

The State Department has this to say in its latest annual terrorism report:

“Today’s chemical terrorism threat ranges from the potential acquisition and dissemination of chemical warfare agents with military delivery systems to the production and use of toxic industrial chemicals or improvised dissemination systems for chemical agents,” the report says. “The growth and sophistication of the worldwide chemical industry, including the development of complex synthetic and dual-use materials, makes the task of preventing and protecting against this threat more difficult.”

Ironically, of the nearly 50,000 victims of terrorism in 2010 (cited in the State Department report), not one was caused by CBRN hazards. That’s not to say that terrorist organizations today are not influenced by the spread of technology or the global economy.

It’s just not happening in the way that these experts think it is.

Take a look at the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack.

– In addition to city maps and CD images of their targets, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) had detailed layouts of the Taj Hotel’s interior.

– They used inflatable rubber boats to get from a fishing trawler to the city.

– Their armaments included AK-56 automatic rifles – Chinese versions of the popular Russian AK-47 – as well as 9-mm pistols, hand grenades, and improvised explosive devices.

– They carried cell phones and Blackberries to communicate through the attack.

– Their group could have obtained night vision goggles, GPS gear, and Kevlar vests.

This is the terrorist profile for the future.

While many people are more than willing to darkly warn about the threat of WMD becoming more real because of the global economy and spread of technology, in fact, the terrorists are much more practical than to chase materials that are too exotic to develop and too dangerous to safely handle. They innovate, they adapt, using currently available commercial equipment and weapons to overcome state and local law enforcement officials. So although the fashionable thing today is to talk about how to monitor and track CBRN hazards on the global economy (that’s impossible) or use strict government measures, similar to those exercised for arms control, to limit the spread of information (good luck with that), we’re wasting time and energy as the most likely threat – terrorists armed with conventional weapons and modern technology – continues to grow.

This is not to say that we should ignore the threat of CBRN hazards.

But we ought to recognize by now that terrorists cannot develop a true WMD capability and will seek out the more easily available CBR materials – gases such as hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, chlorine; ricin toxin and botulinum toxin; cesium and colbalt isotopes. We need our state and local emergency responders to understand the threat when it does pop up, understanding that not all biological attacks will be anthrax, not all chemical attacks will be sarin nerve agent, and not all radiological attacks will be 10-kt nuclear devices.

The CBRN threat is manageable, today and in the future, as long as we use common sense.

 

August 22, 2011

The End of Al Qaeda’s WMD Threat

Filed under: WMD — by Alan Wolfe on August 22, 2011

After the 9/11 incident, nearly ten years ago, there was a great deal of concern about the possibility that transnational terrorist organizations, such as al Qaeda, would seek out weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to use in its next big attack. There was no real evidence of that capability other than a video tape of a confined dog being killed by an unknown chemical (probably hydrogen cyanide) and documents obtained in Afghanistan that purported to show al Qaeda interest in anthrax. The evidence underlying much of the threat seemed to start with Osama bin Laden’s famous proclamation in 1998 that using WMD was his Islamic duty and the accepted hypothesis that all terrorists want to maximize the number of deaths they can cause.

Despite attempts to link al Qaeda’s intent to obtain a WMD with any real capability, the much feared terrorist nuclear attacks against US cities never occurred.

Despite plans to build a gas-dispersal system called “the mubtakkar” that generated hydrogen cyanide, it never happened.

Despite efforts to develop anthrax as a weapon against the West, it seems that making anthrax and botulinum toxin isn’t as easy as many “WMD terrorism experts” claimed.

Despite a decade of continued terrorist incidents against the West, resulting in tens of thousands of casualties every year, we have yet to see a mass casualty incident caused by a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon.

That hasn’t stopped journalists from breathlessly reporting the possibility of a future attack, no matter how beaten down al Qaeda is today.

On August 13th, New York Times journalists Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker reported on the concern by unnamed American counterterrorism officials that al Qaeda’s affiliate branch in Yemen may be attempting to purchase large quantities of castor beans for the purpose of making ricin. These terrorists plan to pack ricin cakes around small amounts of explosive, with the intent of exploding these devices in public places.  This concern was raised to President Obama and his top national security aides sometime in the last year, so they say.

And here’s the ironic part – anyone with any basic understanding of ricin and biology would know that this form of attack would utterly fail to kill any significant number of people (excepting those standing right next to the explosive, perhaps). That obvious point didn’t stop this “news” from being repeated in many major news stations and newspapers.

In late July, Michael Leiter, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, spoke at a conference in Aspen, Colorado.  He said that al Qaeda was likely to switch to small scale attacks, but might continue to seek out chemical and biological hazards such as ricin.

“Is it going to kill many people? No. Is it going to scare people? Yes,” he said.

And unfortunately, he’s right – people will be frightened because the media will trumpet that terrorists used a “WMD” to cause casualties. But the incident, if it ever happens, won’t be that significant. Only the FBI believes that small quantities of chemical and biological hazards are “WMD.”

George Smith, a national security journalist who runs the blog “Dick Destiny,” has followed the irrational fears concerning the potential use of ricin as a terrorist weapon. In one of his latest posts, he addresses many of the challenges in developing and successfully employing a “ricin bomb.”

A long long time ago the US military tried. And the only result was an infamous patent for the purfication of ricin. Since the work was done long before scientists understood protein chemistry (full disclosure: DD’s Ph.D. is in protein chemistry) reading it leads a current scientist fluent in the field to realize it actually destroyed ricin. (A longer discussion of the patent, which stemmed from a very old US military project to develop a ricin weapon, is here. Most, if not all, of the people involved in it are probably dead of old age by now.)

Ricin is a protein. And proteins don’t like lots of things — like heat, harsh handling, many solvents, being taken out of their natural environment, and … well I won’t go into the rest right here.

And the old US ricin patent used all the things that are hard on proteins. Which perhaps has something to do with why ricin bombs have never been made.

George Smith also accurately notes the challenge in talking to counterterrorism officials (or law enforcement) who know nothing about advanced chemistry or biology. They don’t understand that it is not, in fact, easy to develop ricin in quantities to cause mass casualties. It does not, in fact, absorb through the skin, and it’s very hard to aerosolize ricin (if you’re trying to get people to ingest ricin).

If you want to assassinate someone with ricin, sure, it’s been done at least once in history, but you have to inject the ricin into the victim’s blood stream to be effective. You’d think that the utter lack of success by any disgruntled individual or prospective terrorist to use ricin might have tipped off the general terrorist community by now.

But they shouldn’t feel bad. We still have the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security touting their “homeland security scenarios” that feature terrorists using nerve agents, mustard agent, pneumonic plague, aerosolized anthrax, and nuclear bombs to cause mass casualties. You know, all the really dangerous weapons that they can’t seem to obtain.

The utter absence of any intelligence or evidence to point to any attempts of any terrorist group in the world developing this capability has never stopped our bureaucracies from planning for the worst case scenario. It wouldn’t be such a problem if our government wasn’t spending billions of dollars on countermeasures for threats we will never see in our lifetime. It’s not like we have any financial challenges today.

I, personally, am encouraged by the New York Times article. I hope that this al Qaeda affiliate buys tons of castor beans. The financial records for this purchase ought to be a good lead for counterterrorism officials to track them down. And every dollar they use to buy castor beans means one less dollar for improvised explosive devices and RPGs.

We need to encourage more acts of social Darwinism like this.

 

 

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