Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dangerous Radioactive Materials Found in Maine, With Plans To Use Them

The Bangor (Me.) Daily News, via Global Security Newswire, brings this deeply disturbing story, under the headline, "'Dirty Bomb' Materials Uncovered in Maine Residence." Here's the topline:

Authorities in Maine found radiological "dirty bomb" ingredients and related items in the home of a man shot to death in December, the Bangor Daily News reported yesterday ... A Dec. 9 search of James Cummings' home in Belfast turned up "radiological dispersal device components and literature, and radioactive materials," according to a FBI field Intelligence report obtained by Wikileaks.

Among the finds were four single-gallon containers filled with depleted uranium, 35 percent hydrogen peroxide, thorium, lithium metal, thermite, aluminum powder, beryllium, boron, black iron, oxide and magnesium ribbon.

Investigators also recovered "literature on constructing 'dirty bombs,' [and] information referring to cesium 137, strontium 90 and cobalt 60," the report says.

My colleague at R-TAC, Alex Heyl, makes the grim point, "This is Belfast, Maine, not Belfast, Northern Ireland." In other words, we needn't travel to some trouble spot to find people with the motivation and the means to put together deadly devices. As Alex further observes, "RDD's are a clear and present danger which must not only be acknowledged by the Feds but also acted upon."

In the meantime, Washington is atwitter over the stimulus plan, the Geithner plan, and now, most recently, by the withdrawal of Sen. Judd Gregg to be President Obama's Secretary of Commerce. Without making light of political disputes, and the need to resolve them, this report from Maine reminds us that huge dangers face our homeland--and by no means all of them originate from overseas.

UPDATE: The BDN has a story up now, under the headline, "Officials verify dirty bomb probe results." The article features an interview with Belfast police chief Jeffrey Trafton, pictured above.

And while the subhead of the BDN story reads, "State: Public never at risk in Belfast," I am not entirely persuaded. Yes, thanks to alert and effective police work, the threat from James Cummings has been alleviated, but it seems to me that is incorrect to assert, "the public was never at risk." On the contrary, the public was at risk. That risk is gone now, but we have all been reminded of a terrible truth: For a sick but knowledgeable mind, building an RDD, or dirty bomb, is easy.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Obama Administration, Taking Homeland Security Seriously

The Washington Post's Spencer Hsu reports something important--and encouraging--this morning. The headline sums it up:

Many Bush Officials Held Over at DHS/Obama Administration Makes the Unusual Move to Ensure Continuity

As Hsu explains,

Wary of being caught short-handed in case of a domestic crisis, the Obama administration has asked nearly two dozen Bush administration officials in the Department of Homeland Security to stay in their jobs until successors can be named.

The attempt at continuity is unusual in presidential transitions between parties, which typically lead to wholesale purging of politically appointed personnel. ...

By contrast, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has retained the department's second-ranking official, Deputy Secretary Paul A. Schneider, and its top border security official, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner W. Ralph Basham, as well as its operations director and the assistant secretaries responsible for policy and private sector coordination. The heads of the Coast Guard and Secret Service, who are not political appointees, and DHS Undersecretary for Management Elaine C. Duke, whose tenure is set by law, also remain.

The point here is not that Schneider, Basham, Duke, et al. are irreplaceable--nobody, no matter how talented, is irreplaceable.

Instead, the bottom line is that Team Obama is determined to proceed in an orderly fashion, not making change in personnel just for the sake of change. They want to get their people into place first, and only then move out the previous team.

That's good government, at a time of presidential transition, at its best.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

We've been warned--especially about RDD's, aka "dirty bombs."

The always sober and authoritative Global Security Newswire blared an ominous headline this morning: "CDC Warns of Program Cuts."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautioned Friday that funding cuts could force the agency, and its state and local counterparts, to reduce programs designed to prepare the nation to respond to terrorist WMD attacks (see GSN, Dec. 10, 2008).

The warning was issued in the first report from the CDC's Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response, which reviewed progress made in fiscal 2007.

"Building a strong platform for public health preparedness and response is not an easy endeavor," TPER Director Richard Besser said in a press release. “Much work remains to be done to improve our internal and external response capabilities, and to reduce our vulnerabilities to all types of public health threats.”

The new report cited progress in establishing national drug and vaccine stockpiles, multiplying the number of laboratories capable of testing for potential bioterrorism materials, improving disease surveillance capabilities and creating information sharing systems.

This progress, however, is threatened by prospects of reduced funding, the report says.

The federal public health agency might "have to make difficult decisions about what the highest priority activities are and what must be postponed," the report says. "Public health departments at state and local levels may have to make similar choices"

The report, Public Health Preparedness: Strengthening CDC's Emergency Response, outlines CDC′s future preparedness priorities, including enhancing biosurveillance systems to support rapid detection of and response to emerging public health threats, increasing nationwide laboratory capacity to respond effectively after a radiological incident (such as a dirty bomb), and helping state and local health departments strengthen their emergency response capabilities.

Here's the link to the CDC report, which goes even further.

We all realize that many urgent priorities--and many non-urgent priorities--are going to have to be sacrificed in the current fiscal climate. But if I were an elected official, I would not want to vote to cut the muscle of homeland security after reading this report. And of course, ignorance of the report is no excuse, because others, including potential political opponents, will surely be reading it. 9-11 was a genuine surprise. The next attack, whatever it is, will not be.

We've been warned, yet again, by the GSN and CDC.

Monday, January 19, 2009

President Bush Leaves Office on a Positive Legal Note--Actually, Two Positive Legal Notes

Happily, George W. Bush has commuted the long prison sentences of two former--and hopefully future--Border Patrol agents Jose Compean and Ignacio Ramos. It would have been nice if Bush had done this two years ago, but “late” is better than “never.”

The two lawmen have been wrongly imprisoned since 2007 as a result of a murky case in which they were convicted of shooting and wounding a fugitive drug dealer fleeing arrest. Interestingly, the drug trafficker, Osvaldo Aldrete Davila, who was given immunity for testifying against Compean and Ramos, has since been re-arrested and convicted on yet another drug-trafficking charge.

So prison is the right place for lawbreaker Davila, but the wrong place for law-enforcers Compean and Ramos.

Disturbingly, the prosecution of Compean and Ramos seems to have been part of a larger pattern of excessively zealous prosecutorial efforts by publicity-seeking US Attorneys, out to score headlines by harassing law enforcement officials. One unfortunate result has been repeated incidents in which Border Patrol agents have been reluctant to use force to protect themselves and the border, because they fear a Compean and Ramos-like fate.

Now President Barack Obama, and his choice for Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, have a chance to begin afresh on border security/homeland security issues. Do we want the border to be secure, or not? Do we want the homeland to be maximally protected, or not? And will we enforce our laws against illegal entry, or not? Obama has supported building a border fence, and as for Napolitano, back in 2005, when she was governor of Arizona, she declared a “state of emergency” over out-of-control illegal immigration, at a time when Washington was merely dithering.

Let’s hope that Obama and Napolitano find the right answers to border-security questions, but in the meantime, let’s celebrate the release of Compean and Ramos.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Needed: A Seamless Vision of National Security and Homeland Security--And Budgetary Clarity, Too.

I have never quite understood why Homeland Security is seen as such a different category than National Security. I mean, surely the first and foremost mission of the US Defense Department is the defense of the US, aka the Homeland.

Now as a practical matter, I won't argue that there's a value in creating different Departments, DOD to deal with mostly international concerns, and DHS to deal with exclusively domestic concerns.

But while it makes sense for DOD and DHS to be separate bureaucracies, it still makes sense to see them as performing overlapping functions. And so, further, it makes sense to directly compare their budgets. Especially in times of straitened fiscal circumstance, it's a good idea to analyze both DOD and DHS at the same time, to make sure that we are getting the maximum amount of security for each dollar invested.

These issues were raised by Elaine M. Grossman, writing for Global Security Newswire, a National Journal publication. Grossman's piece, "Nuclear Arms Experts Tee Up Spending Debate for Obama," exactly captured the critical importance of DOD/DHS comparisons.

For example, Grossman cited the work of Randall Larsen, a homeland security expert:

"Today, the [Environmental Protection Agency] spends less than $1 million a year on research for cleanup" in the event that a radiological "dirty bomb" detonates in a U.S. city, said Larsen, national security adviser to the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"We [also] need more funding in R&D and operations for medical and public health responses to an [improvised nuclear device]. Reduced spending on [national missile defense] will more than pay for other programs, such as these, that will have far better returns on investment."

To further underscore the relative ratios of spending, Grossman also quoted Micah Zenko, of the Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs , as making some significant cross-departmental comparisons:

In an e-mail message yesterday, Zenko cited a CIA finding that a WMD attack against the United States is more likely to be delivered by "nonmissile" means -- such as container ships, automobiles or aircraft -- than by missiles.

"The U.S. spends almost twice as much per year on R&D of untested missile defenses as it does on efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism," said Zenko, a former research associate at Harvard University's Project on Managing the Atom. "More funding across the range of U.S. programs responsible for securing fissile material, nuclear weapons and weapons-related components would help."

In conclusion, it would seem that the USG is under-investing in homeland security.

And that's something to think about, especially on a day when the outgoing Bush administration, and the incoming Obama administration, cooperated on a homeland security exercise on Tuesday. R-TAC applauds such cooperative efforts, and we hope to see more of them, engaging experts and decisionmakers on a bipartisan basis. \

And if we do, R-TAC is confident that we will see better and wiser spending decisions.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

An "Incomplete" for the "World at Risk" Report

The new "World at Risk" report from the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism is an excellent and impressive document. But even though it contains more than 150 pages,and 50,000 words, of insight and advice, it does not do full justice to all the national/homeland security challenges that the U.S. faces.

Specifically, the Commission--using the catchy url to leave out the danger of a Radiological Dispersion Device (RDD), aka "dirty bombs" from its study. As the Commission explains on page 17:

While the mandate of the Commission was to examine the full sweep of the challenges posed by the nexus of terrorist activity and the proliferation of all forms of WMD—chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear—we concluded early in our deliberations that this report should focus solely on the two types of WMD categories that have the greatest potential to kill in the most massive numbers: biological and nuclear weapons.

In other words, dirty bombs are left out--not left out of terrorists' plans, but left out of the Commission's work. I don't think that this omission was intended to be a dismissal of the dirty bomb threat--the Commission seems plenty aware of the RDD threat, as we shall see below. Instead, I think that the Commission chose to keep its report "manageable," for audiences, perhaps, with short attention spans and limited "bandwidth." And that's an unfortunate choice.

Once again, I have great respect for this commission, and the work it has done, but I respectfully disagree with the RDD omission, and I am sure that my colleagues at the Radiological Threat Awareness Coalition (R-TAC) share in that opinion.

After all, it was the Government Accountability Office that concluded just a few months ago that some two million known potential sources for dirty bombs existed inside the United States. Repeat: Two million.

The vast majority of those sources--in medical offices, construction sites, and food processing facilities--are handled safely and securely. But if only one in a million of them are lost or let loose, by accident or by malevolence, well, as they say, "Houston, we have a problem."

Indeed, the Commission itself acknowledges that terrorist adversaries are fully aware of the devastating potential of an RDD. This chilling passage is found on page 34 of the Commission report:

On July 17, 2008, the Afghanistan National Police arrested Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman believed to have ties to al Qaeda, who reportedly had been acting suspiciously outside the governor’s compound in Ghazni province. Educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Brandeis University, where she earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience, she had been wanted by the FBI since 2004—the first woman sought by the law enforcement agency in connection with al Qaeda.

According to media accounts, when arrested she had in her possession a list of New York City landmarks, documents describing how to produce explosives, and details about chemical, biological, and radiological weapons. She was extradited to New York for trial on charges of attempted murder and assault of U.S. officers in Afghanistan.

And here's a further discussion of the dangerous situation in the Pakistan/ Afghanistan region, in which Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, the roster of planned attacks includes RDD in his list of serious concerns:

Al Qaeda’s Afghan safe haven was critical to its ability to plan and implement its attacks of September 11, 2001. Even then, Pakistan had a role as a transit country for some of the hijackers. But now it has become a key safe haven for al Qaeda, according to the most senior U.S. intelligence official. In February 2008, Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, testified to the House Intelligence Committee: “The FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] serves as a staging area for al Qaeda’s attacks in support of the Taliban in Afghanistan as well as a location for training new terrorist operatives for attacks in Pakistan, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the United States.” A year previously, his office had published a National Intelligence Estimate asserting that al Qaeda “has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safe haven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).” The National Intelligence Estimate added that “al Qaeda will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient capability.” Another senior intelligence official responsible for dealing with terrorism recently affirmed that al Qaeda has strengthened its ties with Pakistani militants in the past year, replenished its mid-level lieutenants, enjoys in the FATA many of the benefits it enjoyed in Afghanistan before September 11, and remains the most serious terrorist threat to the United States. [page 95]

And finally, here's one are two more excerpts from the same report, detailing the concerns of two important world leaders, Robert Gates and Mohamed ElBaradei:

Nuclear Proliferation and Terrorism

Every senior leader, when you’re asked what keeps you awake at night, it’s the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear. — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

On October 28, 2008, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), stood at the rostrum of the United Nations General Assembly and warned the world about nuclear terror.

“The possibility of terrorists obtaining nuclear or other radioactive material remains a grave threat,” said Dr. ElBaradei. A soft-spoken man, he let the power of his message make his case loudly and unmistakably—and it produced major news stories around the world. “The number of incidents reported to the Agency involving the theft or loss of nuclear or radioactive material is disturbingly high . . . ,” he said. “Equally troubling is the fact that much of this material is not subsequently recovered. Sometimes material is found which had not been reported missing.”

We live in a time of increasing nuclear peril. The number of states armed with nuclear weapons or seeking to acquire them is increasing. Terrorist organizations are intent on acquiring nuclear weapons or the material, technology, and expertise needed to build them. Trafficking in nuclear technology is a serious, persistent, and multidimensional problem. The worldwide expansion of nuclear power increases the
danger of proliferation. [p. 72]

The Commission has issued its report, and, once again, R-TAC applauds the Commission for its hard work. But we see serious omissions in the document, and we intend to continue calling attention to the security risks that continue to loom large--all the security risks. As the Commission said, "America's margin of safety is shrinking, not growing."

And that's no small matter, for me, for R-TAC, and for America.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Obama National Security Team

Barack Obama's incoming national security team could have been George H.W. Bush's national security team. And that's high praise.

But for all the gossipy fun of discussing various strong personalities and "teams of rivals," and for all the desire to get back to domestic economic concerns, the cold stalking reality is that Joe Biden was right: The new President, and his team, will be tested, soon enough, by an overseas foe.

A new report from The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, a bipartisan body mandated by Congress and chaired by former Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida, finds that "America's margin of safety is shrinking, not growing."

Presciently, the Commission's final report, written before the deadly Mumbai attacks, singles out Pakistan as a source of danger "Were one to map terrorism and weapons of mass destruction today, all roads would intersect in Pakistan… Pakistan is an ally, but there is a grave danger it could also be an unwitting source of a terrorist attack on the US -possibly with weapons of mass destruction." I am not so sure about the "ally" part, but let's hope for the best.

And in the meantime, let's actively prepare for the worst. Some rich banker might have to wait a little longer for his bailout, but the safety of Americans should take fiscal priority.

Posted at The Politico's "Arena."