HOMELAND SECURITY

Plan to Create Center To Thwart Domestic Bombings Falls Short

7/1/2011
By Stew Magnuson
A proposal to put under one roof representatives of government agencies that are involved in thwarting the use of explosives as weapons of terror in the United States has been scrapped, said the FBI agent in charge of the Joint Program Office for Combating Terrorist Use of Explosives.

While the nightmare scenarios of a domestic nuclear weapon, dirty bomb, or chemical or biological attack continues to capture the attention of counter-terrorism officials, almost every homegrown terrorist plot since 9/11 has involved explosives.

There were nascent plans to create a “bomb campus,” a brick-and-mortar place where inter-agency experts could coordinate their efforts, said Supervisory Special Agent Stephen DiRito, who heads the joint office.  

“We really don’t have a good picture of all the incidents that are going on domestically,” he said at the National Defense Industrial Association and EOD Memorial Foundation’s explosive ordnance disposal conference in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

Fiscal and organizational concerns led to the demise of the bomb campus plan, he said. Instead, there is a national explosives task force that meets monthly. Agencies volunteer to send staff to the meetings. The members are a “coalition of the willing,” he said.

“You hear the name and it sounds very formal, and think it’s probably a big deal, but it really is just a coordination effort at this point,” he said.

There is no dedicated funding stream for these coordination efforts, although the White House is working to help bring in some money, DiRito said.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive-19, signed by President Bush in 2007, acknowledged that explosives remain the terrorists’ weapon of choice. It resulted in a report with 36 recommendations that have been broken down into 94 tasks. The joint program office, which includes DiRito and a staff of two, is coordinating inter-agency efforts to work through the tasks. It is taking on 15 of them this year, he said.

One of the office’s goals is to get a handle on the myriad federal programs that are addressing the improvised bomb issue. Many of the Department of Homeland Security’s component agencies such as the Secret Service, Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard all have stakes in the game. DHS has a small office of bombing prevention and its science and technology directorate has a division dedicated to conventional explosives research and development efforts. Justice has a bomb data center and the national center for explosives training and research.

DiRito said there has been better coordination of late between the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which both have jurisdiction over explosives cases. An October 2009 Government Accountability Office report criticized the lack of coordination between the two law enforcement agencies.

DiRito said on the ground, cooperation between agents is good, and reports of rivalries are overplayed. Nevertheless, the ATF and FBI have recently concluded about a year of talks that focused on resolving jurisdictional issues on explosives-related crimes.

“There is certainly a perception out there that we are always fighting,” he acknowledged.
Nevertheless, there are cultural differences between the two entities. The ATF looks at a bomb incident as a criminal case until it is proven to be terrorism related. The FBI looks at it as terrorism-related until proven to be the act of ordinary criminals, he said.

The task force could potentially resolve some of these conflicting approaches by bringing together a “common operating picture,” he said.

A suspect who is buying illegal fireworks, for example, may appear to be engaging in a criminal act. But if he is communicating with terrorist organizations overseas, and investigators aren’t aware of that, the picture becomes less clear.

While there will not be a “campus,” the task force will have some rooms assigned in the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C., where information can begin to be shared, DiRito said.

The question is now: “What do you do with the information once we get it? It’s a concept but we’re starting to put it into play,” DiRito said.

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Homeland Security, Air Transportation

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