Federal resources that were spent during the past five years on
programs to defend the United States against potential weapons-of-mass-destruction
attacks have not resulted in any substantial capabilities to cope
with such threats, according to government, industry and independent
These sources generally agreed that there currently is no coherent
national strategy to deal with chemical, biological, and nuclear
attacks; no comprehensive training or emergency response programs
at all levels of government and no significant intelligence or foreign-policy
effort to address these global threats. In short, experts believe
that little has been done to make the American public feel any more
confident than it was five years ago in the nation’s ability
to cope with a terrorist attack.
The push within Congress and the Clinton administration to invest
more federal money on homeland defense began in earnest more than
five years ago.
On March 20, 1995, members of an obscure cult named Aum Shinrikyo
attacked hapless subway commuters in Tokyo with poison gas. According
to Amy Smithson—senior associate of the Henry L. Stimson Center
in Washington, D.C., and author of “Ataxia: The Chemical and
Biological Terrorism Threat and the U.S. Response”—the
last time Americans were so thoroughly unhinged by events coming
out of Tokyo was in 1954, when Japanese soldiers battled a giant
celluloid lizard fictitiously born after a U.S. nuclear test.
Shortly after the 1995 incident, Smithson said in an interview,
“I began to get a number of telephone calls from Capitol Hill,
the media and defense contractors. ... When you see those groups
begin to coalesce, you know we are about to have a feeding frenzy,
... and it has been one big, sloppy trough.”
Since 1995, approximately $10 billion in federal funds have been
spent on U.S. chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN)
domestic preparedness programs by at least 20 agencies, including
the Departments of Defense, Justice, State and Agriculture. During
the same timeframe, new legislation was enacted, such as the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici
Act of 1996 to help the United States defend and respond to a CBRN
attack whether from foreign or domestic sources. Legislative modifications
were made to the Stafford Act—which provides guidance for
federal government assistance to states in times of emergency—and
to the Posse Comitatus Act, which sets limits to military participation
in domestic affairs.
Meanwhile, at the executive-branch level, former President Bill
Clinton’s 1998 homeland-defense speech at the U.S. Naval Academy
was followed by Presidential Decision Directives 62 and 63, signaling
executive-branch support for the notion of homeland defense.
Homeland defense, explained Smithson, is a “complex issue
that does not lend itself to PowerPoint presentations.” The
players involved, additionally, have vested interests that can conflict
in the process of policy making. Some agencies, for example, plainly
are looking for new missions, she said. Private firms are looking
just to turn a profit. Elected officials tend to try to help favored
constituents, said Smithson.
Some local first-responders, who are the first line of defense
in cases of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, noted that federal efforts
often don’t address local needs.
“We spent $10 billion on terrorism,” said the chief
of the Arlington County, Va., Fire Department. Edward Plaugher,
who coordinates the entire Washington, D.C., CBRN medical response
team, said that Arlington County’s was the first civilian
fire-fighting organization in the nation to address CBRN issues
thoroughly, and to train its firefighters to respond to a CBRN attack.
“But where did that $10 billion go?” Plaugher said
in an interview. “We just spent $10 billion, and I keep telling
folks that we don’t have enough respirators. ... If we needed
50 respirators right now, we couldn’t get them. And where
am I going to find enough volunteers to operate those respirators?”
Plaugher recently had spoken with Gary Morris, the fire chief from
Oklahoma City. “If there is any community that should be vastly
different now, after the [April 1995] bombing, you’d think
it would be Oklahoma City,” Plaugher said. “But Chief
Morris said that in his department, nothing has changed and that
they are probably less prepared now, because they feel that they’ve
already had their incident and are inoculated.”
The homeland-defense effort, so far, has been a “jobs program
for federal bureaucrats,” said retired Army Col. Eric Taylor,
who served with the Chemical Corps. He is an associate professor
of chemistry at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “For
all the billions of dollars passed out for all these programs, not
one dollar has gone to educate the public. We educate them on how
to respond to hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes,” Taylor
said. “Why don’t we do the same for chemical and biological
Plaugher agreed: “We just don’t have the resources
to educate the community.”
Who Gets Trained?
Taylor also questioned the Pentagon’s rationale for selecting
120 metropolitan areas that, between 1995 and 2000, were designated
to receive specialized CBRN training. “The Defense Department
configured that program and selected major cities that might be
subject to CBRN terrorist attacks, based mainly on [the events in]
Oklahoma City, which, by the way, is a bad example for a CBRN attack.
“When the explosion like what happened in Oklahoma City takes
place, it’s done. ... You basically know, moments after the
blast, the damage done and casualties involved. It’s not the
same with CBRN, where days, weeks, months and even years later,
deaths occur,” Taylor said. The Defense Department, he added,
“took 1990 census data and chose cities with a population
of 144,000 and above and decided that they wanted to train authorities
in those areas. That’s about 46 percent of the population
served, leaving the rest of us—54 percent—out in the
Large cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, “get all
the training,” said Taylor. “If I’m a terrorist,
why would I want to go there? The first responders there know what
to do. The planning is there.”
A local sheriff in the Lafayette area, which is below the 144,000-population
figure, said that, years ago, on a daily basis, 7,000 vehicles passed
through his jurisdiction. Along the route was a rail junction, through
which rail cars full of hazardous materials would pass. “What
better place for a terrorist to attack than a busy junction point?”
Compounding the complexity of the program is the erosion of the
nation’s public-health infrastructure, experts said. Examples
are decaying medical facilities, overworked trauma units, nurses
and incident-management personnel, inadequate research and development
on drugs to use if there are disease outbreaks, a lack of basic
equipment such as decontamination gear and respirators, and the
difficulties in handling the logistics of dispersing pharmaceuticals
during an incident.
“We have made this whole issue so complicated,” said
Jim Schwartz, deputy fire chief in Arlington County. “Here
in the Washington, D.C., area, we can have 50 tons of pharmaceuticals,
from the national pharmaceutical stockpile, brought in on a 747.
But once that plane lands, it’s left to us to figure out how
to get the pharmaceuticals to the people. ... We conducted a training
exercise recently on this, and we had to figure out how many firefighters
it would take to take apart the packaging and put the right pills
in the right place. I’m surprised no one has figured out the
delivery end yet.”
According to Smithson, there are 60,500 hazardous material accidents
per year in the United States, which result in about 2,550 casualties.
She noted that, nevertheless, “hospitals are not required
to have a standing capacity to decontaminate and handle a few, much
less large numbers of patients.
“Hospitals plan to lock their doors after a chemical or biological
attack, rather than risk compounding the problem. ... U.S. hospitals
filled to near capacity on a daily basis often were compelled to
refuse patients during the influenza seasons of the late 1990s,
and the nation’s disease-surveillance capability has deteriorated
significantly,” Smithson said.
The United States has failed in providing world leadership in this
arena, said Barbara Rosenberg, chair of the Federation of American
Scientists’ (FAS) working group on biological weapons. Further,
she said, this nation “has become the single greatest block
to reaching an international agreement on a protocol for verifying
compliance with biological-weapons international prohibitions.”
She advocates strengthening existing international treaties that
deal with chemical and biological proliferation, and believes that
a sound domestic strategy demands bringing potential state sponsors
of chemical biological terrorists groups to the negotiating table.
She pointed to the international Biological Weapons Convention
as a tool to achieve just that. She believes that “our domestic
push on this effort is misplaced” and that more federal funding
should be available for improvements in the existing public health
“It’s important to realize that successful bio-terrorist
activity of this type is extraordinarily difficult. It takes scientific
talent, money, labs to get these weapons to work. Even those in
high places in the military judge bio-terror to be a low probability
here in the United States,” she said. “We believe that
a bio-terrorist would be funded by a state, so we should be doing
all we can to develop strong international agreements in chemical
and biological weapons.”
A recent FAS report discussed the possibility of making acts involving
chemical and biological weapons crimes under international law.
Such laws would be based on existing international treaties that
criminalize aircraft hijacking, theft of nuclear materials, torture
and hostage taking. Proposed treaty language would make any person
or group involved in the production, distribution, development,
acquisition or use of chemical and biological weapons hostes humani
generis, or enemies of all humanity.
Rosenberg noted that former President George Bush and his wife
“exerted strong leadership in this area, and I’m hopeful
that [their son] George W. Bush will be as committed to bringing
much needed executive branch leadership to bear on this issue.”
Fred Ikle, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies,
was an undersecretary of defense during the Reagan administration.
He wonders why the United States would bother negotiating with nations
that do not share U.S. interests in the CBRN arena.
“Why spend time dealing with scoundrels?” he asked.
“We should negotiate with like-minded nations.” Ikle
believes that the United States must re-evaluate current laws and
regulations dealing with how and when military forces should be
involved in responding to domestic terrorist incidents.
“We have to be prepared to mobilize all our resources and
manage the fallout of such an attack,” he said.
In 1999, Ikle proposed the development of a research center for
biotechnology and chemical defense, which would be responsible for
the design and deployment of defensive systems for homeland defense.
“We are talking about a 10-20 year effort here. Prevention
and interdiction—which means placing obstacles, such as human
intelligence and technical-detection devices, in the way of those
who would use these weapons—should be an ongoing effort of
According to Kevin Fannon, Arlington County Fire Department HAZMAT
(hazardous materials) coordinator, intelligence plays a vital role
in the process, and, until recently, the federal government was
placing a “close-hold” on too many things that civilian
defenders need to know in order to do their jobs. “We were
recently doing a threat assessment with the Virginia State Police,
and it was the first time that I, as an emergency manager, saw a
list of potential terrorists given to me by the FBI.
“Some of these terrorists live in our community,” Fannon
said, “and one of the disconnects that we have had in the
past was: How could we plan for these things, if we didn’t
know what the threats were? I think that, at the federal level,
they are beginning to realize that we are key to the whole issue,
and they can’t come in, two or three hours after the attack,
and expect to take control. If there isn’t a planned cohesive
effort, we will all fail.”
There is a general sense in the public and among some in the government
and defense communities that the military has the solutions for
all the CBRN problems at hand. But that is not necessarily the case,
said Smithson. The Pentagon’s most capable chemical and biological-incident
group, she said, is the U.S. Army’s Technical Escort Unit
(TEU), which was created in 1943, originally to escort chemical
weapons transports. The unit marries chemical and biological weapons
expertise with explosive ordnance-disposal capabilities, she said.
The TEU can deploy a 12-person response team within four hours.
Smithson pointed out that it wasn’t until 1995, with the
creation of the Marine Corps Chemical and Biological Incident Response
Force, that another military unit was organized that possessed similar
capabilities to the TEU.
Although Plaugher, the Arlington County fire chief, indicated that
he has an excellent working relationship with the military services,
he does not believe that they can deal with the problem without
help. “We simply can’t rely on the military element.
... A team of eight to 10 people with an incident in the hundreds
and thousands will not help much.”
Schwartz agreed. “The Defense Department will have to recognize
that whatever role that its personnel have will be limited, particularly
if they are deployed elsewhere. And the fact is that the interfaces
of our systems are different and don’t quite link up. They
use the command and control techniques that they use on the battlefield.
Our fire department has a very strong incident-command system.
“There is the potential for different tactical decisions,
based on an incident and how we each make decisions and what priorities
we use,” he said. “Here in Arlington, we’ve talked
things out with the Pentagon [25,000 in-building employees]. If
they want to have an emergency operations center with a ‘three
star’ checking that things are OK in the Pentagon, that’s
fine. But if he’s calling down to me in the command post,
telling me what to do with my fire trucks and ambulances, that’s
not going to happen, because that’s not how we operate.”
An effective homeland defense, said Schwartz, will require “a
good civilian defender and military relationship, so that we know
what each other is doing.”
In December 2000, Ikle’s colleagues at CSIS weighed in with
a series of reports and recommendations, clearly geared to influence
the Bush administration. In a report called “Homeland Defense:
A Strategic Approach,” CSIS noted that to many observers,
homeland defense appears to be a new requirement. But the perception
of homeland defense as a new mission strips it of an important part
of its context. Homeland defense, said the report, “is, and
will always be the most essential function of our government. ...
The United States must view homeland defense as a partnership among
federal, state, local and private sector organizations ... and it
must fit into the U.S. systems of laws and concept of federalism.”
CSIS recommended that the president make the vice president the
equivalent of a “homeland defense czar.” He would be
advised and assisted by an emergency planning staff directed by
the National Coordinator for Security, Critical Infrastructure and
Counter-terrorism. The vice president would chair a National Emergency
Planning Council, with representatives from all departments, agencies,
states and territories.
The National Guard currently has plans to create 32 weapons-of-mass-destruction
civil support teams to respond to domestic terrorist attacks involving
chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Each team will include
22 full-time Army and Air National Guard members, a mobile command
center and a laboratory for analyzing toxic agents. The teams would
be available to local police and fire departments.
To local officials such as Schwartz, the creation of new layers
of bureaucracy is a mistake. “[Homeland defense] can be done
with the current infrastructure,” he said. “Your domestic
defenders are the fire fighters, the police, the HAZMAT people,
the physicians, the nurses, the paramedics, they are the front line,
they will be there first. Why create more civilian support teams
when they are there? What are we gaining from people in the National
Guard, who are 150 miles away and don’t know the community?”
Added Plaugher: “Everyone is frustrated with a splintered
and no-direction approach with no one in charge. It’s going
to get worse until we have another incident. There’s a consensus
on that point among civilian defenders. It’s the mentality
that says we are not going to install that traffic light until you
get one more fatality.”