The following are the article (Commentary) that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on May 25, 2006 and the Letters in response to it:
Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, land, air and sea ports were either closed or severely restricted. Given the imponderables, this response to the crisis was understandable. Five years later, however, too many people remain committed to a port and border security paradigm that is short on risk analysis and offers little or no value to the nation. Members of Congress, including Democrat Ed Markey and Republican Chris Shays, are actively urging 100% inspection of all 12 million containers entering the U.S. Legislation to this effect would require X-ray and radiological scans to ensure that no WMD is inside. But even if these programs work flawlessly – at a cost of billions – America will be no more secure. Arguably we will be less so, because the money could have been spent on programs with a far better return on investment.
We are dealing with a thinking enemy who is patient, uses extensive surveillance and carefully selects the means and methods of attack. Thus we must answer two questions: What materials – weapons – would terrorists want to bring across our borders, and how would this be accomplished? A thinking enemy will not be deterred by deadbolt locks on America’s front doors (our seaports) when our windows and back doors (7,000 miles of virtually unguarded land borders and 95,000 miles of shoreline) remain wide open.
Consider these types of weapons of mass destruction: chemical, biological, radiological or enhanced conventional explosives. A terrorist does not need to bring these into the U.S. – because they are already here. According to an EPA document which was removed from the Internet shortly after 9/11, there are at least 123 chemical facilities in the U.S. that could put a million people at risk if attacked, and more than 700 plants that could put at least 100,000 people at risk. A study in the late 1990s conducted by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency demonstrated that the equipment required to build a sophisticated biological weapon could be purchased off the Internet for less than $250,000, and would fit inside a standard two-car garage.
The material required to build a “dirty bomb” is readily available at medical facilities, research institutes, universities and major construction sites. Trucks containing large quantities of cesium-137 drive between hospitals in Southern California with no security protection. Why bring radiological material into the U.S. to attack us? It’s already here. All a terrorist need do is blow up one of the large X-ray machines we’ve installed to “secure” our ports. As for enhanced conventional weapons, future terrorists will have no more problem building them inside the U.S. than did Ramzi Yousef, who built the bomb that hit the World Trade Center in 1993 – or Timothy McVeigh, who parked a homemade diesel-fuel fertilizer bomb in Oklahoma City in 1995. Al Qaeda training manuals, in fact, say it is preferable to build weapons inside the country to be attacked, as they did in the attack on the trains in Spain, the subway in London and the hotels in Indonesia.
In other words, a 100% success rate for “scan before sail” and similar programs will simply not reduce the likelihood of chemical, biological, radiological or enhanced conventional attacks.
What about nukes? I asked nuclear physicists and security professionals at a Homeland Security panel: “If you were advising al Qaeda on how to smuggle a Hiroshima-type bomb into the U.S., how many of you would suggest renting a 40-foot container and putting it on a ship bound for a U.S. seaport?” No hand was raised. Even if terrorists were to put a nuke in a container, don’t you suppose they’d also be smart enough to put lead around it? This makes a Hiroshima bomb virtually undetectable by screening.
The best strategy for preventing a nuclear device from entering the U.S. has little to do with examining containers by X-ray machines and radiological scanners – despite the idea’s appeal to citizens and their elected officials. The formula for success is rather “70-20-10”:
• 70% of money appropriated in the name of “securing America against nuclear terrorism” should be spent “upstream”: thwarting efforts to obtain weapons-grade nuclear material. This includes increased funding for programs such as Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction. Furthermore, we must ensure that nukes are the intelligence community’s highest concern. The recent Report from the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction stated: “It is obvious that intelligence on loose nukes is not a high priority for the intelligence community.” What could possibly be a higher priority?
• 20% of funding should be allocated to the pursuit and recovery of material and devices should weapons-grade materials fall into terrorists’ hands. This should be a multinational effort led by the U.S. Funds for research and development of new-generation, rapidly deployable detectors would be included here.
• 10% should be spent on response and mitigation capabilities should a nuclear detonation occur. Developing pre-positioned equipment (as does France) for responders and the American population is required.
Since 9/11, the administration and Congress have spent too much time thinking at a tactical level, and too often technology has driven their strategy. No one doubts their good intentions, but this is a backward approach. Wasting money with good intentions make us no more secure.
Mr. Larsen is director of the Institute for Homeland Security and author of “Our Own Worst Enemy,” forthcoming from Warner Books.
U.S. Security Still Needs A Focus on Technology
June 1, 2006; Page A19
Randall Larsen is right that a terrorist chemical, biological or radiological threat probably would be made in the U.S., rather than imported (“‘70-20-10’,” editorial page, May 25). He is also right that the first part of our defense against terrorist nuclear weapons must be to control the proliferation, dispersion, and potential loss of weapons and materials. But he is wrong to discount the threat of a nuclear weapon in a shipping container, and wrong to say such a weapon could easily be shielded from detection. Nuclear weapons, especially primitive ones, are big and heavy. They cannot be smuggled across the Rio Grande or through the north woods in a backpack. While a shipping container could contain ample shielding, that isn’t as simple as wrapping a bomb in lead (lead absorbs gamma rays but not neutrons). More important, the presence of a shield is readily detected by radiography, and would itself be an indication that a container needs to be opened and inspected. We require a defense in depth. That begins with controls over the production and distribution of nuclear material. But these are unlikely to be perfect (prior to September 11 we thought our commercial aircraft were secure against hijacking). They must be backed up by a program to inspect, using radiographic technologies now becoming available, cargo destined for the U.S. at its point of embarkation.
Professor of Physics
St. Louis, Mo.
Mr. Larsen is of course correct in calling for strategic, as well as tactical thinking. But he is quite wrong in stating that “too often technology has driven their strategy.” U.S. strategy has not been sufficiently tech-based; in fact, it often fails to incorporate fundamental advances in technology. All evidence points now to a major technology inflection in our capabilities to see, sense, identify, track and deter threats. While 9/11 has accelerated a market for security technologies, the tech boom of the past two decades fortuitously set the stage for the current maturation and expansion of the tools, materials and software in our digital economy that enables capabilities heretofore limited to high-tech suspense fantasies.
Mark P. Mills
Chief Technology Officer
ICx Technologies Inc.
I agree with most of the observations made by Randall Larsen, Jonathan Katz, and Mark Mills. However, some of the salient points must be elucidated. For instance, gamma rays from nuclear armaments could be shielded from detectors by using certain conventional materials that are readily available on the commercial market. ( I will not elaborate on those, lest my comments be exploited.) A determined adversary, who has no regard for lives – including his/her own – is very difficult to vanquish easily. There is a dire need for forward-looking, proactive research and development in detection and neutralization of chemical, biological, and nuclear threats. I am afraid that we (the U. S.) are deeply concerned only about nuclear threats. However, there is a more sinister, emerging threat from biological and chemical weapons. To make matters worse, these weapons are unimaginably even more destructive; advances in nanotechnologies could be exploited by nation-states AND individuals without access to high-tech centrifuges, advanced pieces of equipment, etc. Nanomaterials and nanotechnologies are so ubiquitous and all-encompassing that they cover all applications. For instance, anthrax spores could be nanosized to significantly increase their lethality; chemical agents could be nanosized, or adsorbed on the surface of the nanomaterials, to effectuate the same results, if not more lethal. The applications are essentially limitless. I, for one, truly believe that we should spend adequate (certainly more than what is currently being done) resources on conventional processes and technologies and derive substantial detective and protective measures. Furthermore, today’s state-of the-art mass spectrometers deployed at the airports cannot detect most biological species, much less nanosized weapons-grade materials. Even ordinary materials could be turned into conflagrant, pyrophoric explosives. These nanomaterials cannot be detected as threats by current standards. I earnestly hope that the U. S. government would foresee and perceive the need for research into such seemingly mundane and conventional materials.