As discussed in the previous issue, a confluence of factors raises the prospect that the United States could be targeted by a terrorist group employing and/or threatening the use of portable nuclear devices, radiological bombs or other WMDs.
In response to this threat, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes that Washington has tried to develop a layered defense. These layers include diplomatic efforts, security partnerships and foreign-aid programs such as the Nunn-Lugar nuclear threat reduction effort with Russia; covert efforts; the Container Security Initiative, by which U.S. officials screen inbound shipping containers at foreign ports; the Proliferation Security Initiative, by which the U.S. and allied navies monitor, interdict and seize WMD precursors on the high seas; and enhanced U.S. border security.
Some layers are working better than others. Let’s look at the positives first.
The Container Security Initiative (CSI) deploys U.S. Customs officials in the world’s busiest ports to pre-screen containers before they are loaded onto U.S.-bound vessels. The rationale for the program, which began in 2002, is simple: As the world’s biggest consumer, the United States opens its ports to some 6 million cargo containers every year. Pushing the ring of security further out, beyond U.S. ports, by pre-screening containers before they arrive in the United States not only helps defend the nation; it also keeps commerce flowing.
Customs agents use “automated targeting tools to identify containers that pose a potential risk for terrorism, based on advance information and strategic intelligence,” according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). They screen inbound containers “as early in the supply chain as possible, generally at the port of departure.” And they use technology such as industrial-sized X-ray machines, gamma-ray equipment and radiation detection to conduct efficient screening. DHS reports that the CSI program is active in 58 ports around the world and pre-screens more than 80 percent of “all maritime containerized cargo imported into the United States.”
In a similar vein, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) aims to intercept weapons of mass destruction and their precursors while in transit, long before these weapons get within striking distance of the United States. Launched in 2003, the PSI program commits the U.S. military, State Department and other agencies to “take effective steps, whether alone or with other states, to interdict the transfer or transport of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems and related materials to and from actors of proliferation concern.”
To date, more than 100 nations have signed on to this effort to prevent the proliferation of WMDs, though only a core group actually engages in PSI maritime interdictions. A State Department official reported that PSI partners had conducted “dozens of successful interdictions of items and technologies bound for countries of concern” by 2008. But he added, “We necessarily keep most of these successes confidential…it’s easier for countries to take action if the results will not be publicized.” As a National Defense University report and CRS analysis detail, PSI maritime monitoring has been credited with preventing North Korean vessels from reaching their destinations, diverting Libya-bound vessels loaded with nuclear material, and stopping missile exports and nuclear-related exports to Iran.
On the negative side of the ledger, Putin withdrew Russia from the nuclear threat reduction framework in 2016. The successful partnership had been in place since 2000. But even that comes with a worrisome asterisk: As ABC News reports, when President George W. Bush asked Putin if he could account for all of Russia’s nuclear material, “Putin replied that he could only account for everything under his watch, leaving a void before 2000.”
Covert efforts to secure nuclear materials took a hit when Bradley Manning exposed U.S. efforts to remove highly enriched uranium from Pakistan.
Finally, we come to border security, which was discussed at length in part one. Suffice it to say, America’s borders are anything but secure—and given that the U.S. has 19,841 miles of sea and land borders, they may not be fully securable.
The nightmare scenario is a terror group or an affiliate of, say, North Korea or Iran smuggling a small nuclear device into the country and then holding a city—and thus the nation—hostage.
That’s where stateside detection and perhaps post-attack mitigation would come to the fore.
A report issued by the Nuclear Threat Initiative concludes, “With an ever increasing number of countries and non-state actors seeking access to nuclear and radiological materials, the government has sought to create devices not only to deter attacks but to detect the basic materials needed for a radiological and/or nuclear attack.”
For example, there are 884 radiation portal monitors scanning U.S. land and sea ports of entry. In addition, the Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory has developed the Miniature Integrated Nuclear Detection System (MINDS) “to scan moving vehicles, luggage, cargo vessels and the like for specific nuclear signatures associated with materials employed in radiological weapons.” The system can detect “one-billionth of the material deemed plausible to create a radiological dispersion device—a ‘dirty bomb.’” It has been put the test in Singapore, as well as on U.S. military bases, railway stations and bus stations.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) uses a number of assets to monitor and detect nuclear threats to the U.S., including:
· Aerial Measuring System platforms, which are fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft fitted with special equipment capable of locating lost radioactive sources, conducting aerial surveys and/or mapping large areas;
· Accident Response Groups, which are units of scientists, technical specialists, crisis managers and equipment that can be deployed on short-notice to the site of a nuclear incident;
· National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center, which is “a computer-based emergency preparedness and response predictive capability” that “provides real-time computer predictions of the atmospheric transport of material from radioactive release”;
· Federal Radiological Monitoring and Assessment Center, which is an interagency taskforce that coordinates radiological monitoring for nuclear accidents or incidents;
· Radiological Assistance Programs (RAP), which provide “advice and radiological assistance for incidents involving radioactive materials that pose a threat to the public health and safety or the environment. RAP can provide field deployable teams of health-physics professionals equipped to conduct radiological search, monitoring and assessment activities”;
· Radiation Emergency Assistance Center/Training Site teams, which provide “medical advice, specialized training, and onsite assistance for the treatment of all types of radiation exposure accidents”; and
· Nuclear Emergency Support Teams (NEST), which assist federal agencies in dealing with incidents, including terrorist threats and attacks, that involve the use of nuclear materials; NEST assists in the “identification, characterization, rendering safe, and final disposition of any nuclear weapon or radioactive device.”
NEST units are deployed around the country, usually in low-key fashion. According to an ABC News report, “They hide their detection equipment in briefcases, knapsacks, even beer coolers, and travel in mobile labs disguised as ordinary delivery vans. They often work right out in the open, but remain hidden from the untrained eye.” There are some 1,000 NEST personnel sprinkled across at least 29 U.S. cities, with a fleet of helicopters and planes at their disposal.
We seldom see or hear about these sorts of units, though we sometimes find out about their missions after the fact: According to a Washington Post investigation, the Pentagon deployed an elite combat unit in and around Washington in late 2001 in response to concerns that terrorists might use a nuclear weapon or radiological device. Operating under the codename “Ring around Washington,” the unit used special vehicles and radiation sensors to monitor streets, waterways and buildings for radiological signatures.
Our decentralized system of government can play an important role in mitigation. The genius of our federal system is that—notwithstanding relentless efforts by Washington to draw all functions of government and policymaking unto itself—governance, political decision-making, communications, emergency response, etc. remain diffuse and dispersed across the United States. That’s a good thing, because it enables states and cities to play a role in preparing for and responding to major crises.
We see glimpses of this before and after natural disasters, such as hurricanes and flooding; before and after grid failures and power outages, such as the 2003 Northeast Blackout; before and after terrorist attacks, such as 9/11, the Boston bombings, the Orlando massacre and the San Bernardino shootings.
To be sure, national defense is the domain of the national government, but state and local governments can play a role in crisis response and disaster mitigation. In an era when the lines separating law-enforcement, defense, national security and homeland security are so blurred—and when the enemy is so intent on crippling our national government—it makes sense to equip states with tools and capacity to respond to WMD attacks. (The Securing the Cities program, which coordinates federal, state and local responses and provides funding for nuclear-radiological detection, is a good model.) And it makes sense to prepare states—through contingency planning, federal-state-local training and regional partnerships—for unthinkable scenarios, like entire cities being targeted or held hostage by WMD-armed terrorists.
Theodore Roosevelt contemplated a similar circumstance in 1914: Positing a scenario in which America’s naval fleet—its first line of defense—is neutralized, he noted that U.S. cities could be “seized…destroyed” or “put to ransom.” In such a dire situation, TR grimly concluded, “The national interest would be best served by refusing the payment of all ransom…accepting the destruction of the cities and then continuing the war until by our own strength and indomitable will we had exacted ample atonement from our foes.” But he conceded, “This would be a terrible price to pay for unpreparedness.”
That explains why TR—and Washington, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan—all advocated for military preparedness and peace through strength. That serves to deter those enemies with a return address and with a rational fear of consequences.
But our jihadist enemies cannot be deterred. To prevent the unthinkable—the loss of a U.S. city— they must be relentlessly pursued and utterly destroyed. Until they are, we at home must be constantly prepared.