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Defending the United States Against Weapons of Mass Destruction

Unpublished memorandum to the United States Senate



Authors: Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, Matthew Bunn, Professor of Practice; Co-Principal Investigator, Project on Managing the Atom, Ashton B. Carter, Former Co-Director, Preventive Defense Project, Harvard & Stanford Universities, John M. Deutch, International Council Member, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Richard A. Falkenrath, Former Assistant Professor of Public Policy; Former Principal Investigator, Executive Session on Domestic Preparedness; Former Executive Director for Research, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John P. Holdren, Former Director and Faculty Chair, Science, Technology and Public Policy Program, Robert Newman, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 1995-1996, Joseph S. Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security; Managing the Atom; Preventive Defense Project




U.S. Senate

From:Graham Allison, Matthew Bunn, Ashton Carter, John Deutch, Richard Falkenrath, John Holdren, Robert Newman, Joe Nye
Date:June 2, 1997
Defending the United States Against Weapons of Mass Destruction

On June 26, 1996, the Senate passed the historic Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1996 by a vote of 96-0. This vote reflected the overwhelming consensus of the Senate that the possibility of domestic terrorism involving nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons is a significant threat to U.S. national security, and that much more must be done to reduce U.S. vulnerability to this deadly form of attack. This grave concern was also evident in the debate over the Chemical Weapons Convention, in which both sides agreed that the United States cannot remain complacent about the threat of domestic mass-destruction terrorism.

The Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1996 also confirmed the judgment of the Senate''s own 1995-96 investigations into this new danger, which concluded that:

  • Weapons of mass destruction are becoming increasingly accessible to rogue states and terrorist groups.

  • Terrorist groups and rogue states are becoming increasingly likely to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States.

  • The United States is very poorly prepared to defeat or limit the damage of a domestic nuclear, biological, or chemical attack.

The initiative taken by the Congress in 1996 was a vitally important first step, but further efforts are essential if the United States is to overcome its stark vulnerability to weapons of mass destruction. If the 105th Congress does not continue to strengthen U.S. capabilities to prevent and respond to NBC terrorist attacks, the United States will remain unacceptably vulnerable to mass-destruction terrorism. The threat of terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction delivered by unconventional means is an even clearer and more present danger to American lives and liberty than the threat of attack by ballistic missiles. It should be met by programs of equivalent imagination.

The rationale behind the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1996 is as simple as it is compelling.

  • First, the United States can only prepare itself for domestic acts of terrorism involving nuclear, biological or chemical weapons by improving its domestic response capabilities at the local, state, and federal levels. Improvements are needed in equipment, training, national coordination, multi-agency exercises, and disease-outbreak detection.

  • Second, the best defense against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons terrorism lies in preventing terrorist acquisition of these weapons. The most dangerous sources of supply are in the former Soviet Union, particularly in Russia's vast stockpiles of insecure nuclear weapons and materials. Fissile material, the essential ingredient of nuclear weapons, is quite difficult to produce, and thus controlling access to such material is the highest-leverage way to prevent nuclear terrorism.

  • Third, the materials and equipment needed for chemical and biological weapons, by contrast, are widely available and very difficult to control, but post-attack disaster response, if timely and effective, could save most of the victims of such an attack and is therefore a high-leverage area for increased attention.

  • Fourth, the U.S. government's coordination of its various efforts to defend the United States against weapons of mass destruction leaves much to be desired, and Congress must take the lead in directing the Administration to improve its coordination efforts.
  • An initial investment in improving these capabilities and programs was made in the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1996, but these achievements will come to naught unless the Congress shows similar leadership in 1997.

    We recommend that the Congress provide full funding for the Administration''s FY98 request of $668.1 million for the continuation of activities supported by the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act. We further urge the Congress to add $421 million to the Administration's request for additional activities laid out below.

    Part I: Domestic Preparedness

    The domestic preparedness programs begun by the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act are a hopeful beginning. Overall, however, the United States remains poorly prepared for domestic acts of terrorism involving nuclear and, especially, chemical and biological weapons. Large gaps remain in the ability of the Federal, State, and local governments to respond to the consequences of terrorist chemical and biological attacks. Local preparedness to detect biological attacks, crucial for triggering a timely medical response, is missing in most locales, and should be strengthened everywhere. National stockpiles of key medicines and equipment are completely inadequate.

    The Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act established the principle of funding domestic preparedness against terrorist WMD attack from the defense budget. The principle makes sense, given that mass-destruction terrorism is a significant threat to national security, and we have followed it in our recommendations here. In general, however, these programs could be pursued even more effectively if each participating agency were given the necessary funds in its own budget.

    Chemical Terrorism Response Preparedness. Preparedness for chemical terrorism requires training, equipment, and supplies for local first responders. Chemical weapons kill too fast to allow national resources to be brought to bear. However, a quick, effective, local response can save most victims of chemical attacks. Yet only a few American cities are even partly prepared, and existing programs are inadequate to fill the gap. Programs now under way, managed by the Defense Department''s Chemical and Biological Defense Command (CBDCOM), will gradually analyze the preparedness needs of major cities and train trainers for first responders, starting in nine cities this year. Under those programs, however, training and equipping each local force will be left to local initiative, and will be constrained by local resources.

    Without protective equipment for first responders, and without nerve-gas antidotes for victims, current training programs will do little to save lives after an attack. The only program that provides significant equipment and supplies for local first responders— the Metropolitan Medical Strike Team program of the Department of Health and Human Services— has funding sufficient only for an initial investment in ten cities. Even that funding ($6.6 million) has only recently been transferred to HHS by the Department of Defense, after months of interagency wrangling. The Administration requested no funding for this key effort for FY98.

    Recommendation: Congress should add $15 million to the FY98 Department of Defense budget request, for transfer to HHS, to sustain and expand the Metropolitan Medical Strike Team program.

    Congress should also add $50 million to the DOD request, for transfer to FEMA, earmarked to pay for equipment and supplies for local first responders. Congress should further direct HHS, FEMA, and CBDCOM to coordinate their assessment, training, and equipment programs for maximum effectiveness. Congress should also provide $10 million to FEMA for realistic joint, full field exercises of Federal, State, and local chemical and biological terrorism response capabilities.

    Biological Terrorism Response Preparedness. Biological weapons kill over a period of days, making it possible to bring national resources to bear in response, but only if the attack is detected when the first victims get sick, or sooner. Early detection is crucial because the illnesses caused by the most important biological warfare agents become impossible to treat after their early stages. Preparedness for biological weapons terrorism requires awareness at the local level to detect an attack, combined with regional and national medical response assets to provide medical care for the victims. American cities are not well prepared to detect the early signs of a biological attack, however. Even if an attack is detected, national resources, including both the ability to deploy large number of doctors to care for victims and the necessary stockpiles of medicines and supplies, are grossly inadequate to treat the thousands of victims likely from a biological warfare attack. Programs now under way will do little to remedy these shortfalls.

    Improving the chances for timely detection of an attack will require better disease-outbreak monitoring at the local level. Ensuring an effective response requires improving the existing system of Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, and stockpiling medicines and supplies needed for victim treatment. Both are well worth the cost in their own right. In addition to saving lives after a biological terrorist attack, strengthening the monitoring of disease outbreaks will help control existing public health problems associated with emerging and reemerging infectious diseases. Moreover, a better national capability for mass casualty care will improve the Federal Government's ability to respond to natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes.

    Recommendation: Congress should add $70 million to the Department of Defense budget request, for transfer to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, to support a grant program to improve worldwide disease-outbreak monitoring systems, and to expand physician awareness of the early symptoms of biological-warfare-induced diseases.

    Congress should add $25 million to the DOD budget request, for transfer to the Public Health Service, to strengthen the Disaster Medical Assistance Team program, and to establish a national stockpile of the key medicines and medical equipment needed for treating biological warfare illnesses.

    Improvements in National-Level Response Capabilities: The Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act provided funds for creation of a national-level chemical and biological response team. While too slow to respond to a no-warning chemical attack, this resource, along with better training and organization in the FBI, have improved the nation''s ability to pre-deploy assets to protect special events, such as the Olympics or the Inauguration, and to deploy assets in response to credible intelligence warning of possible attacks.

    Recommendation: Congress should fully fund the Administration''s request for national-level chemical and biological response assets.

    Nuclear Terrorism Preparedness: National capabilities to search for and disable nuclear weapons are an essential part of U.S. preparedness for nuclear terrorism. The Federal Government has two decades of experience with the specialized organizations and technologies required, but serious problems have sometimes been evident. Sustained funding and high-level commitment are needed to ensure that these problems are corrected.

    Recommendation: Congress should continue to support full funding for the Department of Energy''s Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) and related research. Congress should require that NEST, the FBI, and FEMA conduct realistic full field exercises at least every two years, and should add $5 million to the Department of Energy budget request to support these exercises.

    Early Warning of WMD Acquisition and Attack. Effective action to prevent terrorist attacks depends on timely warning, but the United States is poorly prepared to detect signs of biological and chemical weapons acquisition, or to detect weapons being imported into the United States. Law-enforcement agencies could significantly improve the chances of early warning of a terrorist attack by promoting self-policing efforts in key industries. Suppliers of key dual-use equipment and supplies usable in nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons acquisition should be encouraged to report unusual purchases for possible investigation, and the government should systematically monitor this information for signs of suspicious activity.

    Improved training and equipment for the Customs Service could improve the chances of detecting weapons smuggled into the United States. Funding for this program has been dropped from the Administration''s budget request.

    Recommendation: Congress should add $15 million to the DOD budget, for transfer to the Customs Service, to improve the capacity to detect mass-destruction weapons at U.S. borders. Congress should also add $2 million to the DOD budget, for transfer to the FBI, to pay for a detailed study of commercial availability of key dual-use equipment and supplies, and on the best way to establish a system for reporting suspicious purchases. Congress should require the FBI to submit within a year a plan for establishing an early-warning system for reporting and investigating suspicious purchases.

    Research and Development: New technologies offer the potential for significant improvements in domestic preparedness in several areas. Key needs include improved equipment to detect and identify chemical and biological agents; modeling of attack effects to better locate and identify victims needing treatment; economical and non-destructive decontamination and cleanup technologies; economical methods for "hardening" key government buildings; improved methods for assessing and disabling weapons; and improved treatment options for biological-warfare diseases, including broad-spectrum vaccines. Research and development programs now underway address each of these issues, and should continue to receive full funding.

    Recommendation: Congress should fully fund the current DOE budget request for NBC detection technology R&D, and should sustain funding for other relevant research efforts, including those of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Congress should direct the Administration to prepare a study of how to establish broad-spectrum centers of technical expertise on CBW, ranging from policy to emergency response, comparable to the role the DOE laboratories have played on nuclear issues.

    Part II: Controlling the Sources of Supply

    The Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act dramatically strengthened U.S. programs to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the into the hands of rogue states or terrorist groups. While these programs have made remarkable progress, most nuclear, chemical, and biological materials in the former Soviet Union still have no effective security systems; no verification of weapons dismantlement and materials controls is in place; none of the key states yet has any effective ability to interdict smuggling of mass-destruction materials; conversion of Russia''s three remaining plutonium-production reactors has not yet been achieved; no effective plan has yet been put in place to eliminate Russia''s huge existing excess plutonium stockpiles; and the incentives for Russia''s mass-destruction experts to sell their talents to others continue to worsen. Programs to address these urgent dangers are not foreign aid, but critical investments in U.S. security.

    Securing Nuclear Materials. Poorly guarded nuclear bomb materials pose a particularly urgent threat, creating the possibility that a rogue state or terrorist group could acquire a nuclear capability virtually without warning. Fortunately, a major cooperative program is underway to install modern safeguards and security systems for these facilities as rapidly as practicable. In the 1996 Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, Congress voted overwhelmingly to increase funding for this critical effort.

    Recommendation: Congress should again increase DOE funding for nuclear material security, boosting the Administration''s $137 million request for FY98 to $160 million. Congress should direct the Administration to accelerate the completion date for its Russian nuclear security projects from 2002 to 2000, and to plan budgets accordingly.

    Eliminating Excess Plutonium Stockpiles. Both to ensure that nuclear arms reductions cannot be quickly reversed, and to reduce the risks of nuclear theft, it is important to eliminate stockpiles of excess weapons plutonium as rapidly as practicable. Because Russia does not have the money to build the necessary facilities to eliminate its excess plutonium stockpiles, this is only likely to be accomplished if some international cooperative approach to financing the operation is worked out - involving either government contributions or some form of barter arrangement (e.g., a uranium-for-construction-of-facilities swap). Establishing such a mechanism is an urgent issue for U.S. national security and preventing nuclear terrorism, but the Administration has been moving forward only slowly and incrementally.

    Recommendation: Congress should increase the requested funding for plutonium disposition activities in Russia to $40 million, express the sense of Congress that the Administration should seek to establish both a U.S.-Russian agreement governing how and when plutonium disposition will be accomplished and an international burden-sharing arrangement to accomplish the mission as rapidly as practicable (and that the United States should be willing to contribute financially to such a burden-shared approach), and direct the President to submit a report with the fiscal 1999 budget outlining its plan for such an international approach to disposition of plutonium in Russia, and its progress in implementing the plan to date.

    Dismantling Strategic Launchers. With the Helsinki accords, and the potential prospect of Russian ratification of START II, there are dramatic new opportunities to increase the scale and pace of dismantlement of Russian strategic forces targeted on the United States - and thereby decrease not only the threat of deliberate attack, but the threat of accidents or unauthorized launchers by potential rogue elements. Last year, Congress appropriated $351 million for the Department of Defense''s Cooperative Threat Reduction program (Nunn-Lugar), which funds these dismantlement efforts, along with a broad range of programs from securing nuclear warheads to military-to-military contacts. The Administration has requested $382 million for FY98, but significant additional funding would be required to take full advantage of the new opportunities for more rapidly dismantling the threat to the United States - from dismantling missile submarines to increased dismantlement of heavy SS-18 ICBMs.

    Recommendation: Congress should fully fund the Administration''s $382 million Nunn-Lugar request, and provide a $120 million supplement, targeted to increased the pace and scope of dismantlement of Russian strategic forces.

    Dismantling WMD and Infrastructure. Last year, recognizing the urgency of controlling WMD materials in the former Soviet Union, Congress added funding to end production of Russian weapons plutonium, dismantle former Soviet chemical weapons production facilities, and expand military-to-military contacts to services responsible for preventing proliferation. Additional efforts in the Department of Energy also relate to dismantling and containing weapons of mass destruction, including efforts to develop technology to verify the dismantlement of nuclear weapons.

    Recommendation: Congress should remove the sublimits within the Nunn-Lugar budget, which unduly constrain the program''s flexibility, and fully fund parallel DOE programs aimed at dismantling and containing weapons of mass destruction. Congress should also add $10 million to DOE''s budget to speed work on verifying the dismantlement of warheads.

    Interdicting WMD Smuggling. In the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, Congress established a new program to interdict smuggling of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and materials, by training and equipping border control personnel in key countries to deal with these threats. This effort, together with complementary programs already underway, is making slow but useful progress, but no additional funding to continue it has been requested.

    Recommendation: Congress should provide an additional $20 million in FY98 for provision of training and equipment to law enforcement and border control personnel to interdict mass-destruction smuggling, and should require the Administration to submit, with next year's budget, a comprehensive plan to ensure that each of the relevant countries has adequately trained personnel and appropriate equipment in place to deal with this threat by the year 2001, with estimates of the funding required.

    Controlling the "Brain Drain." The thousands of unemployed and unpaid former Soviet scientists and engineers and the increasing economic desperation in Russia's "secret cities" also pose a serious proliferation threat. Even a small cadre of technical experts could provide a dramatic breakthrough to a rogue state proliferation program. To prevent proliferation by redirecting these experts to civilian work, the Administration is requesting $15 million in State Department funds for the U.S. contribution to the International Science and Technology Centers (ISTC, which are cost-shared with Europe and Japan), and $30 million for DOE''s Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP, formerly the Industrial Partnership Program), a cost-shared effort with U.S. industry to team U.S. businesses and laboratories with Russian laboratories for projects to bring innovative Russian technologies to market.

    These programs are employing thousands of former weapons scientists in peaceful pursuits, but economic collapse in Russia's closed nuclear cities remains an urgent proliferation threat. A comprehensive, multi-pronged approach is needed to address this issue, emphasizing areas of shared U.S.-Russian interest. In particular, some of the funds devoted to promoting civilian economic development in Russia should be targeted specifically to the closed cities.

    Recommendation: Congress should increase funding for the DOE''s IPP program by $20 million, and increase funding for the ISTC by $10 million (since there is now a backlog of worthy projects for which no funds are available). Congress should also direct the State Department to target $40 million of the "Partnership for Freedom" funds (for economic development in the former Soviet Union) to civilian development in Russia''s closed cities.

    Part III: National Coordination and Oversight

    The Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1996 recognized that the Federal, state, and local efforts required to provide effective countermeasures to WMD terrorism were not being adequately coordinated, and called for the establishment of a national coordinator for this purpose in the White House. The Administration has made no serious organizational changes in response to this requirement, simply designating the existing deputy national security advisor as the required national coordinator. Consequently, the United States still lacks an organized, systematic program to improve the quality of national coordination and oversight of its many disparate efforts to meet the WMD terrorism threat. These problems in the policy coordination, direction, and advocacy from the White House are impeding the implementation and growth of programs designed to reduce U.S. vulnerability to NBC terrorism.

    Recommendation: Congress should direct the Administration to provide a report, in conjunction with the FY99 budget, on how it plans to coordinate all of the efforts required to address the threat of WMD terrorism.

    Congress should further direct the NSC, DOD, FBI, FEMA, DOE, HHS, and CIA to submit a detailed annual joint report on the threat of domestic NBC terrorism and their progress in reducing vulnerability to this form of attack, modeled on the annual reports of the Counterproliferation Policy Review Committee.

    Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction (millions of $)

    Department of Defense
        Metro Strike Teams (HHS)6.60.0+15.0
        First Responder Support (state, local, FEMA)16.424.2+50.0
        U.S. Border Security (Customs)9.10.0+15.0
        NBC Detection & Response (DOD Programs)26.07.5
        WMD Response Exercises (FEMA)9.817.0+10.0
        BW Outbreak Surveillance (CDC)+70.0
        BW Medical Response Teams & Stockpiles (HHS)+25.0
        NBC Acquisition Early Warning Study+2.0
    Department of Energy
        Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST)31.537.5+5.0
        NBC Detection Technology R&D17.023.0
    Total, Domestic WMD Terrorism Preparedness116.4109.2+192.0
    Department of Defense (original Nunn-Lugar)
        Dismantling Strategic Forces106.8154.6+120.0
        Fissile Material Storage Facility104.564.7
        Nuclear Warhead Security15.036.0
        Plutonium Reactor Conversion10.041.0
        CW Destruction Pilot Facility70.735.4
        Dismantling CW Infrastructure11.020.0
        Nonproliferation Mil-Mil Contacts2.02.0
        Interdicting Nuclear Smuggling (Customs)9.00.0+20.0
    Department of Energy
        Nuclear Material Security (MPC&A)112.6137.0+23.0
        Plutonium Reactor Conversion3.50.0
        Interdicting WMD Smuggling8.621.2
        Warhead Dismantlement Verification6.37.0+10.0
        Plutonium Disposition10.010.0+40.0
        Initiatives in Proliferation Prevention (IPP)30.030.0+20.0
    Total, Controlling the NBC Sources of Supply500.0558.9+233.0
    Recommended New Programs
        Department of State (preventing Brain Drain)+50.0
    Total, Defense Against WMD616.4668.1+421.0

    Note: Figures provided by officials of the relevant departments. For most projects, actual funding is determined by allocations made by the department within larger appropriated line-items. Figures reflect allocation projections as of April 1997. The table reflects only those programs within the scope of the FY97 Defense Authorization Act (which included the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act). Additional efforts related to preventing WMD terrorism are underway in numerous Federal, state, and local agencies.


    For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at 617-495-1400.

    For Academic Citation:

    Allison, Graham T., Matthew Bunn, Ashton Carter, John Deutch, Richard Falkenrath, John Holdren, Robert Newman, and Joseph Nye. "Defending the United States Against Weapons of Mass Destruction." Memorandum, Harvard University, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 1997.

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