The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has stated that the United States faces a rising danger from terrorists and rogue states seeking to use weapons of mass destruction (WMD). If the government learned that a terrorist intended to use a WMD in a major metropolitan U.S. city, senior government officials would need to determine how to resolve the competing interests involved in identifying and stopping the terrorist, while simultaneously preparing to save lives and minimize damage to property. This requires an understanding of how national policies have evolved over the past 25 years and what interagency coordination mechanisms exist that enable the government to effectively coordinate law enforcement and consequence management activities across all levels of government.
When a naturally occurring hazard such as a hurricane threatens the nation, the National Hurricane Center and its dedicated team of specialists use a number of data and analytical tools, such as satellite, radar, and aircraft reconnaissance, to produce reliable, timely, and accurate analyses and to issue guidance, forecasts, and warnings to government officials and the public. These forecasts and warnings then enable a range of preparatory consequence management (CM) planning activities and actions to take place in the days and hours leading up to the event. For example, depending on the level of detail and accuracy of the forecasts and warnings, emergency teams can be alerted, and government officials can order assets to be strategically deployed.
Preparatory CM activities before an impending hurricane clearly can have a positive impact on the government’s ability to effectively respond. Government officials at all levels work together to pre-position resources to mitigate the loss of life and facilitate the restoration of essential services without concern of the hurricane being alerted to those activities. If weather predictions are accurate, the hurricane will arrive regardless of the preparatory CM activities that are taking place. Stated another way, “Mother Nature” does not care if the public is warned or is prepared.
Profoundly different considerations may be present, however, if government officials were to learn that a terrorist was threatening to use a WMD – the left of boom scenario. Preparing to meet the challenges from such a scenario has unfortunately become a necessity for officials at all levels of government. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has stated that the nation faces an increasing threat from terrorists intent on using a WMD to cause mass casualties. Meeting these challenges is complex and, even with perfect planning and coordination, there are competing interests.
First, as stated in the National Response Framework, when a terrorist strategically attacks a target, it can lead to cascading critical infrastructure failures that do not necessarily exist when there is a natural disaster. Second, the range of potential consequences that can occur when a terrorist is using a WMD will vary depending on the nature and type of the WMD that the terrorist intends to use. Indeed, one of the federal government’s planning assumptions when a terrorist threatens to use a WMD is that the capabilities of state and local authorities will be overwhelmed and the consequences may also challenge the federal government’s ability to respond. Third, unlike nature’s indifference to preparatory CM activities when the government seeks to lean forward by surging assets and people into a potential disaster zone, when a terrorist is alerted to certain steps the government may be taking to thwart the terrorist, the terrorist’s tactics may evolve, or the terrorist may seek a target of opportunity. Thus, highly visible preparatory CM activities that take place during a credible terrorist threat, particularly one involving the threatened use of a WMD, require complicated concurrent planning by the law enforcement and CM communities.
Evolving National Policies
During the past 25 years, the federal government has increasingly recognized the need for concurrent planning to address the interdependencies that exist during terrorist threats and incidents. This evolution in national policies began with President William Clinton, when he issued Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 39, Counterterrorism Policy, that stated that the Department of Justice (DOJ)/Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would have the lead crisis management responsibilities for terrorist incidents that took place within the United States, and lead responsibility for CM would be assigned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). PDD-39, however, implied a sequencing of these activities when it stated that FEMA would be in support of DOJ/FBI until such time as the attorney general transferred the lead agency role to FEMA. That division of responsibility and implied sequencing of activities was reinforced three years later when Clinton issued PDD-62, Protection Against Unconventional Threats to the Homeland and Americans Overseas.
After the tragic events surrounding 9/11, a number of key changes were implemented by President George W. Bush that pushed the federal government toward a more unified approach. First, Bush issued Executive Order 13228, which led to the appointment of a key advisor who would be responsible for coordinating domestic response efforts across the federal interagency. Thereafter, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Bush also signed a number of directives, including Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) 5, Management of Domestic Incidents. HSPD-5 was designed to enhance the nation’s ability to respond to critical incidents by creating a “single, comprehensive national incident management system.”
HSPD-5 made clear that the U.S. government would treat crisis management and consequence management as integrated functions rather than separately. While the attorney general retained lead responsibility for the operational law enforcement response inside the United States, including the criminal investigation of the terrorist acts and the coordination of the other members of the law enforcement community who were responding to the incident, the attorney general was also directed to establish cooperative relationships and coordination mechanisms with DHS, which included FEMA.
New Coordination Mechanisms & Consolidated Functions
HSPD-5 directed the development of a National Response Plan to align federal coordination capabilities into a unified “all-hazards” approach. HSPD-5 also called for the secretary of homeland security to establish a National Incident Management System (NIMS) that would enable federal, state, and local governments to work effectively and efficiently together to prepare for, respond to, and recover from domestic incidents, regardless of cause, size, or complexity.
Since that time, a series of national frameworks, federal interagency operational plans, and incident-specific annexes have been developed, including the National Protection Framework (NPF), that are designed to enhance the way the whole community safeguards against acts of terrorism, as well as other threats and hazards. The NPF provides guidance to integrate, synchronize, and create a “unity of effort” among the responding jurisdictions and organizations. However, a terrorist threatening to use a WMD could present a dynamic situation that requires senior government officials to make complex and difficult decisions in a more coordinated and integrated manner. As a result, to achieve a unity of effort, the federal government has taken two recent steps to enhance its ability to respond: the establishment of the WMD Strategic Group (WMDSG) and establishment of a new office with DHS – the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office.
The WMDSG is an interagency crisis action team led by the FBI that supports information exchange and deconfliction of the law enforcement and counterterrorism activities that are designed to identify and stop the terrorist and the activities of the CM community to reduce the loss of life and protect property. Through its interagency representatives, which includes FEMA, the WMDSG facilitates the sharing of real-time investigative information, intelligence, and technical analysis to respond to credible WMD threats.
In the WMDSG, FEMA staffs and manages the Consequence Management Coordination Unit (CMCU), which provides strategic advice and recommended courses of actions that are coordinated with ongoing law enforcement and counterterrorism operations. The WMDSG’s CMCU, therefore, provides a critical link between FBI-led crisis response and FEMA-led CM operations. FEMA’s CM planners are able to develop integrated plans with their FBI and other federal interagency CM colleagues, taking into account different factors when the government seeks to lean forward, including consideration of the impact that certain CM options may have on the law enforcement community’s ability to stop the terrorist. Although HSPD-5 may have theoretically fixed what one former official described as the “ambiguity of authority inherent in separated concepts of ‘crisis management’ and ‘consequence management’,” it was not until the establishment of the WMDSG that effective and integrated federal interagency coordination for WMD-related terrorist threats and incidents would truly be possible in practice. Experiences in the intervening years also led one official in FEMA’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Office to recently note in November 2019 that leaning forward and prepositioning resources to respond to a natural disaster has “changed how we do business in the CBRN realm too.”
The second major recent development that has enhanced the government’s ability to integrate its response to WMD terrorism has been the reorganization within DHS that consolidated many of DHS’s countering WMD-related activities in one office. When the Congress established in law the CWMD Office, its purpose was to create a focal point for CWMD-related activities within DHS. Among other things, DHS’s CWMD Office is responsible for developing a coordinated internal DHS strategy to enhance DHS’s ability to integrate with its federal partners to protect the United States from terrorist use of a WMD.
As a result, with the establishment of the WMDSG and the reorganization of DHS, the federal government is now able to more effectively integrate its crisis management and CM planning and coordination to protect against and prevent a terrorist from using a WMD. These two steps have greatly enhanced the ability of the federal government to respond to terrorist threats and have enhanced the ability of senior government officials to make better risk-informed crisis management and preparatory CM decisions.
The importance of simultaneous crisis management and CM planning and coordination in the context of a WMD-related terrorist event cannot be overstated. As the 2018 nerve agent attack in the United Kingdom (UK) illustrates, during incidents that involve a WMD, law enforcement officials may be required to work closely with specialists and scientists to identify and locate a chemical weapon, decontaminate a crime scene and affected areas, and simultaneously conduct a major law enforcement investigation. After watching a detailed presentation by UK authorities that highlighted lessons learned from that response, one counterterrorism expert emphasized in 2019 that “the complexity of the Salisbury incident enhances the need for continuous training and collaboration among all emergency response agencies and the private sector.”
Improving State, Local, Tribal & Territorial Preparedness
When President Barack Obama issued Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) 8, National Preparedness, he stated that the responsibility for preparing for threats and hazards should be shared by all levels of government. President Donald Trump has recognized this as well and, in the 2018 National Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism, he noted that federal authorities cannot combat WMD terrorism alone, and that many others, including first responders, play a key role in protecting the nation against WMD threats.
As stated in the January 2020 Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP), exercises are vitally important to prepare the nation to respond to critical incidents. As a result, the federal government should be working closely with its state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) partners in planning, training, and exercising the simultaneous coordination of the law enforcement and CM communities in scenarios where a terrorist is threatening to use a WMD. Recognizing the critically important role that SLTT governments play in responding to WMD terrorism threats and incidents is essential if the nation is going to effectively protect against and prevent the potentially catastrophic results that might occur if a terrorist was able to use a WMD. To achieve this goal, officials at all levels of government should look for opportunities to plan, train, and exercise together with the WMDSG.
It has been more than 25 years since President Clinton recognized in PDD-39 the importance of developing comprehensive capabilities to prevent and respond to the consequences that could arise if a terrorist threatened to use a WMD. Now that national policies have evolved, many of the countering WMD activities within DHS have been consolidated, and the federal government has a new interagency coordination mechanism in the WMDSG that can seamlessly integrate crisis management and CM planning and coordination, the nation is better prepared to meet the challenges and competing interests that could arise if a terrorist were to threaten to use a WMD. To fully reap these benefits, the law enforcement and CM communities at all levels of government need to plan, train, and exercise the left of boom scenario of a terrorist threatening to use a WMD. Only then will the nation maximize its ability to lean forward to stop the terrorist, while simultaneously maximizing its ability to save lives and mitigate the damage to property.