Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Homeland Insecurity: Thinking about CBRN Terrorism

Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Homeland Insecurity: Thinking about CBRN Terrorism

Article excerpt

As the U.S. government has seen a change of administrations, there is an opportunity for a constructive review of how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has addressed the threat of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism in terms of policy development and execution to date. Our current homeland security approach to CBRN terrorism seems to have its basis in the incidents of 9/11 and the U.S. anthrax attacks in October-November 2001. However, our history of homeland defense goes back to 1941 (at least); to understand from a policy perspective how the government ought to address domestic CBRN terrorism, we need to put it all in context.

This essay examines the issues of how DHS has prepared for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear terrorism incidents. DHS should address these threats in a consistent and holistic manner, but instead the federal government has developed singular hazard-based approaches to each threat. DHS has not assessed its efforts to address CBRN terrorism or identified where DHS could improve, and as a result we see merely the continuation of previous initiatives. The essay concludes with some recommendations on how DHS could improve this area with better policy practices.

Words Are Important

The term "WMD" was the word of the year in 2002, but quickly fell into abuse as a term of political rhetoric and comedic punch lines. It was originally developed in 1948 by the United Nations as an accepted arms control term to describe the nation-state use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. But today, the term means different things to different people and agencies. For that purpose, I'm going to take some time to define my terminology.

The military defines WMD as nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons that can cause a "high order of destruction." I would add to this definition that the intentional use of these weapons needs to cause mass casualties, defined as more than one thousand injured or dead, during a single incident. I disagree with the FBI's use of the Title 18 U.S. Code definition of WMD because of its deliberate lack of reference to the scale of the incident. To the Department of Justice (DoJ) lawyers, any amount of CBRN or explosives, no matter how small, constitutes a WMD. Even innate devices or hoaxes can have WMD aspects.

The presence of mass casualties is a key aspect of the WMD incident, but "mass casualties" is an undefined and nebulous phrase. In general, people use the term to describe a situation in which there is one more casualty than the number of available hospital beds in the local area. Because we want to focus on the federal response, we need to quantify that number to understand what federal actions are adequate. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) chose the number of 1,000 injured or dead people for the trigger for its Metropolitan Medical Response Forces.

In my mind, the term "WMD" is only useful as an arms control term. It is often used by international agencies and government officials to discuss a particular class of unconventional weapons. However, the United Nations wanted to keep the term open to other forms of technology that might equal nuclear weapons in the scope of their destructive force, so I'm not against consideration of high-yield explosives, directed energy lasers, or other weapons that could realistically cause mass casualties. Ricin and botolinum toxin, often used in small amounts for assassinations, are not WMD. Airplanes used to cause mass casualty events are not WMD. Pipebombs and grenades are not WMD.

There is a distinction between nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons and CBRN hazards. This is probably more of an issue for specialists than for laypersons, but again, words are important. The term "NBC weapons" should cause one to take into consideration that a nation funded its top scientists and engineers with millions of dollars and built numerous facilities to develop and test special weapons that had definable characteristics and expected outcomes. …

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