The U.S. Is Still Vulnerable to Chemical Threats

The Boston Marathon bombings were a chilling reminder that terrorist attacks don’t need to be big to wreak havoc on a population.

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The Boston Marathon bombings were a chilling reminder that terrorist attacks don’t need to be big to wreak havoc on a population. Pressure cooker bombs containing shrapnel killed three people and injured 264 others, causing physical and emotional scars that will last for years.

What if a similar incident included the release of a biological or radiological agent? Are emergency responders prepared to handle such a contingency? The answer may vary depending on the agency and its training resources, but experts believe a terrorist’s ability to carry out that type of attack may be increasing.

Matt Mayer, a former official with the U.S. DHS, said acquiring the equipment and technology needed to disperse biological or radiological agents is becoming easier. Mayer referenced the 2010 failed car bombing attempt in New York City’s Times Square and the Christmas Day 2009 bombing attempt of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as examples of terrorist plots that would have succeeded if the bombs had detonated.

In addition, communication breakdowns between various levels of law enforcement may have an impact on detecting potential terror schemes. A recent report co-authored by Mayer and Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Michael P. Downing called out the FBI for failures that may have led to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Writing for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy think tank, Downing and Mayer argue that the FBI’s interview of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev in January 2011 should have been revealed to the Boston Police. While the interview may have concluded that Tsarnaev posed no terrorist threat at the time, his actions in the following two years may have suggested otherwise.

Tsarnaev’s subsequent activities went undetected by the Boston Police Department because it was unaware of the FBI’s initial contact with him, leading to lost opportunities to detect and potentially thwart the bombing at the marathon.

“In some cases, we’ve been lucky rather than good,” Mayer said. “So the question is can we be doing better, and I think the answer to that clearly after Boston is ‘yes.’”

“We can’t afford for the Boston bombing to be a biological release or a radiological release,” he added. “We can’t afford to have those losses.”

Modern Terror

Biological attacks have occurred through the mail over the years, using agents such as anthrax or more recently, ricin, to intimidate and harm political figures. Though filters and other preventive measures have since been installed in post offices and mail rooms, other delivery methods concern experts.

Bombs like the ones used in the attack during the Boston Marathon are an obvious delivery device for radioactive materials. Vayl Oxford, national security executive policy adviser for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and former director of the DHS’ Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), said there are high-risk radiation sources within the U.S. that could easily be the source of a dirty bomb. He added, however, that the U.S. launched a program in 2007 to enhance security of domestic radiation sources to make them difficult to obtain.

The nation has focused its strategy on preparing areas that could be on a terrorist’s agenda due to the potential of high casualties, according to Duane Lindner, director of Sandia National Laboratories’ Chemical and Biological National Security program. Tourist attractions, sporting events and major urban areas are just some examples of prime targets.

“Where do people gather and where are there crowds of people? You quickly come to worry about the transportation hubs,” he said. “[They would] release the material into the air in an airport terminal or other sorts of transportation nodes.”

But while large public spaces are an obvious target for terrorists, Lindner was equally concerned about toxins being introduced into food and water supplies, which could have devastating economic consequences.

Experts shared some steps that emergency managers and the public can take to prepare. Oxford said state and local responders should stay actively engaged with federal anti-terrorism efforts through their own law enforcement agencies or by involvement with trade associations. Mayer agreed, but said some localities can’t afford additional training, particularly with the pressure to handle more routine threats like floods and fires.

Mayer also said the public must be better prepared. Although the release of a biological or radiological agent may not be as frequent as a tornado touching down, knowing what to do could save lives. From the DHS’ If You See Something, Say Something campaign to general awareness, having citizens on alert is vital.

“We need to make sure people are up to speed on what they should or shouldn’t be doing,” Mayer said. “That way, if an incident occurred, we don’t become obstacles for first responders who have to waste valuable resources dealing with people who are perfectly fine.”

Prevention and Preparation

The U.S. has been busy in recent years shoring up domestic and international efforts to mitigate the risk of biological and radiological terrorism. Many steps have been taken in the last decade to increase the intelligence that federal, state and local emergency officials have about potential biological or radiological materials in the U.S.

One major initiative is BioWatch, a program started as a result of the 2001 anthrax attacks in the U.S. The federal initiative is designed to find pathogens in the air around various major cities using a series of air filters and sensors. The air samplers are installed in several locations in a city, from street level to the top of skyscrapers.

The air filters are collected regularly and analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When a filter contains a notable pathogen, the CDC alerts the FBI, which then investigates the issue and in turn, alerts local law enforcement of a possible biological threat.

Lindner said BioWatch is based on technology developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., in the late 1990s, in conjunction with the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. He said the fundamental architecture for the system was laid out by Sandia around the same time.

BioWatch’s effectiveness depends on how frequently the filters are analyzed. Lindner was confident in the technology, but said the system isn’t perfect. He believes, however, that there is a high probability that any catastrophic release of biological contagions into the air would be detected.

The key once a biological release is confirmed is to have a response plan in place to identify and help treat those affected by the pathogen. Lindner said any terror attack using a biological agent is also a major public health event that needs situational awareness.

“There’s a strategic stockpile of medical countermeasures, and there are warehouses full of things that would be used in response,” Lindner said. “So there’s been quite a bit of attention placed on trying to understand exactly who’s impacted as quickly as we can and get medical treatment to those individuals. In each of these cases, work continues to improve the system.”

While many homeland security and public health officials support the early warning system, BioWatch also has its critics. The system has come under fire in recent years for several false alarms. In a story published by the Los Angeles Times last year, reporter David Willman detailed false positives, including a false alarm for bacteria that causes tularemia, an infectious disease, at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Willman cited other false alarms that happened in Los Angeles, Detroit, St. Louis, Phoenix and the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the newspaper’s investigation.

Lindner called the Times’ take on the false alarms a “fundamental misunderstanding” of how the system works, adding that false positives can be triggered by closely related biological organisms and seasonal changes in air composition. In a nutshell, it’s like a very steamy shower setting off a smoke alarm.

While the nationwide debate on BioWatch continues, a next generation of the technology has been designed. Lindner said it’s expensive, but the new system would include autonomous detectors that enable much faster response to biological releases. Work also is being done to tie in medical diagnosis technology so that anyone infected with a biological agent can be treated faster.

“Whether it’s a terrorist attack or a new disease, the initial indicators of such an event would look very similar, and our response would be very similar,” Lindner said.

Complicate the Threat

There’s also concern that terrorists could access radioactive materials and spread them through conventional explosives. The U.S. government has begun in the last six years to make it harder for radiological material to get into the country or be transported — however, the threat remains.

Oxford said a layered strategy is in effect that combines numerous counterterrorism tools along with improvements in domestic and international intelligence gathering. He said the goal is to complicate terrorist planning to the point that the likelihood of a radiological attack being successful would be so low that it acts as a deterrent.

To increase security against radiological materials and weapons of mass destruction getting into the U.S., the federal government launched the Proliferation Security Initiative in 2003. The nonbinding agreement aims to eliminate trafficking of various nuclear materials. According to the U.S. State Department, 102 nations have signed on to be a part of the initiative as of 2012.

As another proactive effort, the DHS has been scanning for radiological and nuclear material at U.S. ports and border crossings for years. The DNDO and U.S. Coast Guard established a pilot in 2009 to enhance maritime radiological and nuclear detection capabilities. Called the West Coast Maritime Pilot, it’s part of a national effort to develop regional plans for reducing the transportation of radiological and nuclear materials on small vessels.

Oxford explained that although most in-bound cargo at seaports and border crossings was being scanned, officials were concerned about ships that weighed less than 300 gross vehicle tons that weren’t being scanned. The pilot helped address that.

The program took place in the Puget Sound region of Seattle and in San Diego. Working with state and local law enforcement, areas were surveyed for existing radiological and nuclear detection architecture, as well as potential risks and recommendations for addressing them. A port security grant helped to purchase radiation detection equipment for state and local program participants.

Although federal funding for the program has ended, the West Coast Maritime Pilot has soldiered on with local agencies conducting regular demonstrations and exercises.

Other current efforts include DNDO’s Securing the Cities program, an initiative under way in metropolitan areas including New York City and Los Angeles. The program is designed to enhance protection from radiological attacks in urban environments. Securing the Cities helps municipalities develop a regional structure of law enforcement and first responders to identify, prevent and respond to potential nuclear or radiological threats.

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.
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