Jon E. Dougherty is a Missouri-based political science major, author, writer and columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
A distinct possibility exists that the United States will be attacked with a weapon of mass destruction over the next decade, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s most recent “Global Trends” assessment.
The agency’s report made a series of dire predictions about future terrorist attacks against the U.S.
Jeffrey D. Brake, a national defense fellow for the Congressional Research Service, wrote in an April 19 paper that the CIA, along with the National Intelligence Council, predicted a chemical or biological weapon of mass destruction “will get into the hands of state- and non-state belligerents, some hostile to the United States.”
“Prospects will grow that more sophisticated weaponry, including weapons of mass destruction – indigenously produced or externally acquired,” will fall into the wrong hands, the CIA said. “The likelihood will increase over this period that WMD [weapons of mass destruction] will be used either against the United States or its forces, facilities and interests overseas.”
“Chemical and biological threats to the United States will become even more widespread,” Brake’s paper said, adding that “such capabilities are easier to develop, hide, and deploy than nuclear weapons.”
“Asymmetric threats in which state and non-state adversaries avoid direct engagements with the U.S. military but devise strategies, tactics and weapons – some improved by ‘sidewise’ technology – to minimize U.S. strengths and exploit perceived weaknesses” are also on the horizon, the CIA predicted, as quoted by Brake.
“The consequences of failing to deter, detect or preempt terrorist attacks – some possibly with WMD – would be devastating,” Brake said in his report. “In addition to the tragedy of hundreds or thousands of dead and injured citizens, the long-lasting serious economic and psychological damage to American society could well prove to be the terrorists’ greatest victory.”
Capability to respond
Signed by President Bill Clinton in June 1995, Presidential Decision Directive 39 – the foundation for current U.S. anti-terrorism policy – states that the country has three objectives in its battle against terrorism: 1) Reduce the nation’s international and domestic vulnerabilities to terrorism; 2) deter terrorism; and 3) respond to terrorism rapidly and decisively.
Despite the CIA’s dire predictions and Executive Branch directives to prepare the country for the possibility of terrorism via weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. remains woefully unprepared for such an attack. Worse, the infrastructure to confront a mass casualty incident caused by a WMD incident simply isn’t in place.
On June 22-23, a senior-level war game called “Dark Winter” held at Andrews Air Force Base, which examined the national security, intergovernmental and information challenges of a biological attack on the American homeland, concluded that “an attack on the United States with biological weapons could threaten vital national security interests.”
“Massive civilian casualties, breakdown in essential institutions, violation of democratic processes, civil disorder, loss of confidence in government and reduced U.S. strategic flexibility abroad are among the ways a biological attack might compromise U.S. security,” said a summary of the exercise.
Also, officials found that “major ‘fault lines’” existed between federal, state and local governmental agencies and the private sector, which would hamper any ability to manage a chemical- or bio-weapon release. “These ‘disconnects’ could impede situational awareness and compromise the ability to limit loss of life, suffering, and economic damage,” the summary said.
Worse, “there is no surge capability in the U.S. health care and public health systems, or the pharmaceutical and vaccine industries,” officials concluded, meaning that the “institutionally limited surge capacity could result in hospitals being overwhelmed and becoming inoperable.” The limitations could also “impede public health agencies’ analysis of the scope, source and progress of the epidemic, the ability to educate and reassure the public, and the capacity to limit casualities and the spread of disease.
“Should a contagious bioweapon pathogen be used, containing the spread of disease will present significant ethical, political, cultural, operational and legal challenges,” the summary concluded.
The theme of the game was the introduction of a smallpox outbreak in Oklahoma City, Okla., a year from now – the winter of 2002. “During the thirteen days of the game, the disease spread to 25 states and 15 other countries,” according to the summary.
“‘Dark Winter’ was a fictional scenario – it’s not as easy to do as we made it to be, but it’s not impossible either,” said Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, U.S. Army (Ret.), director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute.
Other experts say emergency response planners should separate chemical and biological attacks, even though both are lumped together as “weapons of mass destruction.” Also, it’s important to distinguish which kind of attack has taken place because responses can vary widely.
A chemical agent, for instance, could present a much more immediate danger than a biological agent, the latter of which may take up to two weeks to manifest itself – though both kinds of attacks ultimately may prove just as lethal.
Overall readiness lacking
“There has been plenty of discussion in terms of different views about how ready we are,” one government expert who requested anonymity told WorldNetDaily. “But that depends on what you’re talking about, in terms of what kind of attack it is and in terms of the [response] measures we have in place. There’s a lot more that needs to be done in terms of surveillance and detection, particularly for biological.”
Asked if any readiness improvements have been made since June, Reimer said he believed “awareness certainly has improved after September 11 and was even on the upswing” immediately following the exercise.
Others agreed, but generally speaking the U.S. has a long way to go, they said. That is especially true for the nation’s medical personnel.
“In terms of biological [attacks], there’s a lot more we need to do to educate our doctors to recognize signs and symptoms of certain things,” the government’s expert said.
Also, officials say the U.S. medical capacity operates near full at all times, in an effort to trim costs by not having to maintain hospital rooms and staff that are not immediately needed. During a major catastrophe, that capacity would be taxed past its limit in a short period of time.
“In terms of the basic conclusions” of the Dark Winter exercise, “they have been attested to and elaborated on before Congress” by war-game participants and other experts, Reimer added.
“Most experts agree that the United States is vulnerable to terrorism,” Brake concluded in his report. “While intelligence experts contend that the use of a WMD is less likely than the more conventional forms of terrorism, the consequences of a successful attack could be massive.”