America’s Achilles’ Heel: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Terrorism and Covert Attack, by Richard A. Falkenrath, Robert D. Newman, and Bradley A. Thayer. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998, 354 pp.
Raymond A. Zilinskas
In this thoughtful and provocative book, Richard A. Falkenrath, Robert D. Newman, and Bradley A. Thayer argue that although the United States is well prepared to meet military threats from even the most powerful nations, its vulnerability to terrorists wielding nuclear, biological, or chemical (NBC) weapons is its Achilles’ heel. In discussing and elaborating on four specific areas of vulnerability and making policy recommendations for dealing with them, the authors make a strong case. Policy in this area has been moving swiftly, however, and since the book was published many of its recommendations have been acted on. In the fall of 1998, the Clinton administration announced a wide range of measures aimed at preventing terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, but assessing the effectiveness of these measures will be difficult to do because their contents are mostly classified. Despite these steps, the policy debate will continue. Thus, although the book is somewhat dated, it will continue to remain an excellent source for background information and policy ideas.
According to Falkenrath, Newman, and Thayer, the first area of U.S. vulnerability is the lack of a coherent national strategy to deal with the NBC threat and of a federal agency with responsibility for developing a strategy and coordinating defensive activities. They recommend the establishment of an NBC Response Center, which would develop a national antiterrorism strategy, coordinate activities among executive agencies, and perform NBC threat assessments. The federal government would be given primary responsibility for meeting NBC threats, with the Department of Defense (DOD) as the lead agency.
The second vulnerability is inadequate intelligence and threat identification. Timely high-quality intelligence is critical to defense against the covert NBC threat. However, the U.S. intelligence community was set up to deal with Cold War threats and is not well equipped to detect covert NBC threats posed by nonstate actors. Thus, there is a need to reinvigorate the U.S. intelligence community, enhance cooperation between U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies, improve methods for detecting small NBC acquisition programs, and strengthen the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s epidemiological surveillance program.
The third vulnerability is insufficient domestic operational preparedness for NBC attacks. Currently, first responders (generally emergency medical personnel, firefighters, and police) are ill prepared to manage the aftermath of NBC attacks. Police must be trained to investigate NBC incidents, local and state emergency response capabilities must be enhanced by extending and strengthening the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici (named after former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn and current Senators Richard Lugar and Pete Domenici) domestic preparedness program, and the federal response resources must be improved and increased. In addition, they argue that the core U.S. military mission should include responsibility for responding to NBC events and that coordination among federal, state, and local agencies responsible for NBC response should be improved.
The fourth vulnerability is inadequate security for fissile materials stored in Russia. Criminals, terrorists, or proliferant governments could find it easy to acquire nuclear weaponsrelated materials from poorly guarded facilities there. To fix this problem, the authors say, the Department of Energy (DOE) and DOD should be provided with sufficient funding to ensure that this material indeed is secured, the purchase of Russian highly enriched uranium should be accelerated, Russia should be given assistance to convert three plutonium plants to civilian uses, excess stocks of plutonium in the United States and Russia should be destroyed, and programs to encourage Russian weapons scientists to stay home should be expanded.
President Clinton’s wake-up call for action was probably the Oklahoma City bombing. Shortly after that, in June 1995, the Clinton administration issued Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 39, which orders the National Security Council (NSC) to coordinate interagency terrorism policy issues, names the State Department as the lead agency in dealing with overseas terrorism, and puts the FBI in charge of responding to domestic terrorist acts. Further, in July 1996, Executive Order 13010 was published, which established the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection and asked it to develop a national strategy for protecting the country’s eight critical infrastructures from a wide spectrum of threats. On May 22, 1998, the administration issued two relevant PDDs. PDD 62 establishes the Office of the National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counter-Terrorism within the NSC and charges it with overseeing government activities such as counterterrorism, protection of critical infrastructure, and preparedness and consequence management for weapons of mass destruction. PDD 63 acts on the findings of the Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection by ordering a series of actions whose objective is to significantly increase the security of government systems by 2000. The directives have come with a lot of money for agencies to spend. According to the General Accounting Office, spending on unclassified terrorism-related programs and activities rose from $5.6 billion in 1996 to $7. 6 billion in 1999 and is expected to rise to $8.6 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2000. In addition, $1.4 billion is slated for critical infrastructure protection.
Therefore, even as America’s Achilles’ Heel went on sale, the Clinton administration was upstaging its message. The authors’ first and third vulnerabilities are being dealt with in these ways: A national office to coordinate defenses against terrorism has been established; the Justice Department has been designated as the lead agency for domestic antiterrorism; coordination between agencies has been improved; substantial efforts to protect critical infrastructures are under way; networks at the national and local levels to detect and survey infectious diseases are being improved; many people at local and federal levels are being trained to respond to NBC events, including those of terrorist origin; and the awareness of the NBC terrorist threat is rising among the public and its representatives.
It is more difficult to assess what is being done to deal with the second and fourth vulnerabilities. Actions specified in the three PDDs could be correcting problems related to inadequate intelligence, but because these efforts are classified, we cannot know. We do know that DOE and DOD are providing substantial assistance to Russia to secure nuclear and chemical facilities (the status of Russian military biological facilities is not publicly known). For this reason, we can hope that it would be difficult for either unfriendly governments or terrorists to access supplies and materials stored at these facilities; however, we cannot be assured that this is so. The weakness of the Russian government and its unresolved suspicions of U.S. motives are likely to limit achievements in this area for some time.
Some analysts worry about the effectiveness and appropriateness of government programs to suppress terrorism. Is the tremendous effort now under way to protect our society against NBC terrorism logically prioritized, well directed, and sufficiently funded? Unfortunately, because no measures exist to assess the quality and quantity of antiterrorism activities, we won’t be able to determine this until the unfortunate time when a NBC terrorist event occurs and the system is tested.
Nevertheless, U.S. society is reaping two major, if unintended, benefits from antiterrorism programs. First, although first responders have some knowledge of and training in how to manage chemical and nuclear events, they have had no such capabilities in the biological field. Had there been in the recent past an accident or deliberate act that liberated known or exotic pathogens, no agency at either the local or national level would have been qualified to manage the event. However, because of the new programs, there soon will be a sizable cadre of first responders who can quickly distinguish between biological and chemical attacks and do what is necessary to manage them.
The second benefit relates to emerging infectious diseases. A 1993 Institute of Medicine study found that the major shortcoming in our society’s ability to meet the threat of these diseases was the near-total absence of a sensitive and efficient infectious disease surveillance system. In the past, when outbreaks of diseases had occurred, their presence was not detected until a significant time had elapsed. But by then the diseases could have spread widely, causing many casualties and bringing about much suffering. The outbreak of AIDS is an example of delayed identification and response. However, as a consequence of actions being taken in response to PDDs 39, 62, and 63 (as well as PDD NTSC-7, which sets a national policy to meet the threat of emerging infectious diseases), funding for improving the nation’s disease surveillance networks has risen from less than $10 million in FY 1993 to almost $200 million in FY 1999. Detection of a dread new disease may now be possible much earlier. Ironically, the Clinton administration may be remembered for these actions rather than for its efforts to improve antiterrorist defenses.
In view of recent developments, is America’s Achilles’ Heel still worth reading? After all, many of its policy recommendations have been coopted. In addition, some readers may be put off by its length and sometimes excessive detail. Despite these problems, the authors have written a valuable book, useful to security analysts, policymakers, and others who are concerned with the threat of NBC terrorism. Since substantial weaknesses related to the second and fourth vulnerabilities remain and need to be fixed, my hope is that when administration officials plan for additional programs to deter and protect us from NBC terrorism, they will refer to Falkenrath, Newman, and Thayer for ideas and guidance.
Daniel Barbiero is associate archivist at the National Research Council.
Rick Borchelt is lecturer in technology policy and communication at Vanderbilt University and a former manager of media relations at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Melvin A. Goodman, a former senior Soviet analyst at the CIA, is professor of international security at the National War College, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., co-author of The Wars of Eduard Shevardnadze (Penn State Press, 1996), and editor of Lessons of the Cold War (Penn State Press, forthcoming).
Raymond A. Zilinskas is senior scientist in residence at the Monterey Institute of International Affairs’ Center on Nonproliferation Research in Washington, D.C., and the editor of Biological Warfare (Lynne Rienner, forthcoming in fall 1999).