US Nuclear Biological and Chemical Terrorism Policy prior to 9-11

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive
-- Sir Walter Scott

Modern United States anti-terrorism policy was developed following the 1995 April 19 truck bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah  Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
And, the Aum Shinrikyo’s sect’s 20 March 1995 sarin attack.

At that point US leaders went on record with dire “not if, but when” predictions that terrorists would launch attacks using chemical and biological agents to cause harm to large numbers of Americans.  As a result, Congress appropriated money to investigate groups that might engage in the use of biological and chemical weapons in attacks, to provide responders with training and equipment, and to beef up security at Federal property.

Large sums of money were made available based upon the assumption that terrorists would launch a successful release of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) substances in the near future.  The FBI and FEMA established CONPLAN, a plan premised upon the successful release of NBC’s by terrorists  Yet, the United States did not engaged in an risk/threat assessment process to determine realistic risks or to evaluate the level of risk reduction that would be achieved by this policy.  The risk/threat assessment process is a fundamental requirement which must be undertaken prior  to the development of cost effective strategies to achieve a reduction of risk.

Had such a process been begun in 1995 it would have shown that the probability of such a successful release of NBC’s by terrorists is low, while the probability of such a release by government or by enterprises regulated by government is high.  The reason for this is that the vast majority of terrorists groups simply do not have access to the technology or capital to engage in the production of these substances in a safe or cost effective manner.  Compare the cost of Aum Shinrikyo’s sect’s 20 March 1995 sarin attack at over a million dollars, which caused injury to members of the group and resulted in the loss of lives of only 12 people and virtually no capital losses; with the half million dollar cost of the World Trade Center / Pentagon attacks which resulted in the death of approximately 2,000 people and the destruction of billions in property.

Terrorists and governments both have limited resources.  Terrorists and governments must cope with a choice of how to achieve their goals within their limited budgets.

The only cost effective way that terrorists could mount an effective attack using NBC’s is by means of gaining assess to these materials directly from governments or from enterprises regulated by governments.  Yet, a government or enterprise regulated by government would come under the sanction of the entire international community, if they knowingly distributed these substances to terrorist groups.  Had Saddam Husein been implicated in distributing the anthrax that was used following the attacks of 9-11, the full economic, political and military force of the International community would have come down on Iraq.  The source of the anthrax that was used to kill Americans after the 9-11 attack was the government of the United States, not Saddam Husein.

When evaluating risk reduction policy the consequences of all risks and threat sources must be admitted to the equations.  It matters not if you die from a terrorist releasing Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) substances, or if you die from government or an industrial release of NBC’s, you are dead just the same. Responders need the same equipment and the hospital staff will confront the same problems.  The only difference is that the probability of death from government or industrial releases is thousands of times more likely than death from terrorist releases of these substances.   Government and industrial releases of NBC’s have resulted in the deaths of ten’s of millions of people in war, in use against their own civil populations, and as the result of accidential and deliberate releases by industry.

Prior to 9-11-2001 the Federal government’s approach ignored this fact. The unintended affect of this policy was getting equipment and training into the hands of responders, who are dying from releases of these substances from government and enterprises regulated by governments.  Committees of Congress, who did not provided funds to develop a risk/threat management policy, provided so much money that virtually every agency with a potential response role was equipped and trained to respond to such a NBC attack.  An orgy of spending took place without any consideration of risk reduction or cost effectiveness.

Since terrorists only have a limited capacity to produce NBC’s, the regulation of access to these substances should have been the first goal of an anti-terrorism policy.  Yet, while billions were being spent to enable responders to survive an event that was more likely to be caused by government and industry, limiting access to these substances played but a little part in US anti-terrorism policy.

An effective threat/risk assessment policy examines all threats and all risks.  The purpose of that policy is to develop plans that enable us to develop cost effective, interoperable solutions.  Any time that threat can be eliminated, then there is no risk.  While, the number of people killed from Government and industrial releases of these substances is certainly in the tens of millions; the number of people killed because government and industry distributed these materials to terrorists is only in the ten’s of thousands. And the number of people killed because terrorist processed a material into a toxin that was then released is less than a hundred.  The development of a threat/risk management policy based solely on the reduction of risk because terrorists processed a material into toxins misses 99.9% of risk.

Reports indicate that the Osama Bin Laden’s al Qaeda group spent large sums of money attempting to produce weapons of mass destruction and that all these efforts were failures.

Having cried wolf for the six years prior to the September 11, 2001 attack, an industry built upon feeding Congress and the media fears that NBC’s would be released by terrorists was greatly embarrassed when their predictions failed to come true.  It appears that at least one member of this community felt so badly about the situation that he felt obliged to educate the media and Congress about the deadly risk of NBC’s by distributing anthrax, that came from a US government source, to cause the deaths of five people.

There are approximately 850,000 US facilities that work with hazardous or extremely hazardous substances.  Congress is now considering legislation that will result in the requirement that approximately 15,000 of them to conduct terrorist assessment and implement risk/threat policy.

The risk of an accident involving genetic research was demonstrated when Australian researchers accidentally created a virus that if released in the wild would have caused the extinction of the mouse species.  Researchers Ron Jackson and Ian Ramshaw made the results of their experiment public, “to warn the general population that this potentially dangerous technology is available,” said Jackson. “We wanted to make it clear to the scientific community that they should be careful, that it is not too difficult to create severe organisms.”

In another experiment Willem Stemmer, chief scientist with Maxygen, (a California pharmaceutical research firm) created a strain of the common intestinal bug Escherichia coli that was 32,000 times more resistant to the antibiotic cefotaxime than conventional strains.  In response an appeal by the American Society for Microbiology, he too destroyed his invention.

If new infectious agents are accidentally released, little could be immediately done other than to attempt identify new cases and isolate them.

The risk/threat issues that surround the genetic research and the proliferation of the technology that will come in the years ahead should be a major cause of concern.  The public need to become educated about the potential impacts of the technology.  At some point this industry will come under public scrutiny and public control.  The question is:

Will it be before or after a catastrophic event?

The Disaster Center
June 15, 2002

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The Disaster Center