Against the unthinkable: The government's secret chemical weapons defense

What would happen if a chemical weapons attack happened here? The government has been making secret plans for years

By William M. Arkin
Published September 9, 2013 11:44AM (EDT)
   (<a href=''>denirofoto</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(denirofoto via Shutterstock/Salon)

Excerpted from American Coup

Existing disaster plans may include provisions for mass fatalities but should be reviewed and tested regularly to determine if these plans are appropriate for the relatively long period of increased demand which is characteristic of a pandemic, as compared to the shorter response period required for most disaster plans. There are currently no national plans to recommend mass graves or mass cremations. This would only be considered under the most extreme circumstances. The use of the term mass grave infers that the remains will never be re-interred or identified. Therefore, the term mass grave should never be used when describing temporary interment.
-- Pandemic Influenza Mass Fatality Response Plan, 2007

A month before 9/11, scientists from Livermore and its sister Los Alamos laboratory conducted a test using live microbes in a sealed chamber at the West Desert Test Center of Dugway Proving Ground, eighty-five miles from metropolitan Salt Lake City. Dugway is a huge, remote high-desert military installation surrounded on two sides by mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert to the north, acoustically and electronically quiet and free of light pollution, about as remote as one can get in the continental United States. Since 1942, through ups and downs, the post has hosted development and testing of and countermeasures to biological and chemical weapons. Until the United States renounced its own biological weapons in 1972 and destroyed its inventory, ten different biological agents were tested at Dugway.

Since the Nixon years Dugway base has served as the off-the-books black hole of the weapons of mass destruction national mission forces, the commando, SWAT, and technical arm of the Program. Dugway is where secret lethality tests are performed to gauge foreign and terrorist capabilities but also American equipment, protective clothing, detectors, and destroyers. If not literally the birthplace of the guinea pig, then it is certainly the place where the executive agents can play out their darkest fears and fantasies with humans and animals alike; it is the only U.S. facility equipped to test with aerosolized Bio-Safety Level 3 agents, the most deadly.

Once past Access Control Point #2, deep within the Dugway base and into the biological warfare testing area, no weapons and no cameras are allowed. This is the territory of the Special Programs Division, which supports the national laboratories, homeland security, the FBI, the intelligence community, the WMD response community, and the blackest of the black Joint Special Operations Task Force for all matters relating to weapons of mass destruction. It was here, one month before 9/11, that scientists from California and New Mexico completed a compartmented project started during the Clinton administration to develop and emplace biological agent detectors around the White House (the very ones that would later spook Cheney and company). Biological Aerosol Sentry and Information System (BASIS), the name of the program, collects air samples within well-defined locations and at specified time intervals. The samples were then hand-carried to laboratories, where technicians look for indications of potentially lethal bacteria and viruses. Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos laboratory scientists developed BASIS to achieve “a virtually zero rate of false-positive detections,” according to the principal investigator, false alarms having the potential to cause both official disruptions and public panic. BASIS sampling units were deployed around the White House right after 9/11, in Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics, and in New York City for the first anniversary of 9/11. At the Olympics, 2,200 air samples were analyzed and the performance of BASIS was reported to be flawless in its early warning of an al Qaeda biological warfare attack.

Just as anthrax had been supplanted by botulinum toxin in October 2001, highly classified intelligence around the time of the first anniversary of 9/11 warned the Bush inner circle of the possibility of terrorists wielding smallpox, a disease that had been eradicated in America and was therefore considered particularly virulent if clandestinely reintroduced. This was actionable intelligence of a different sort — not a connecting of the dots to target some high-level al Qaeda leader or suicidal martyr, but early warning for the executive agents and the XYZ to take action. “We were each informed individually of whether we’d be vaccinated but not told who else was on the list,” recalls Condoleezza Rice. “We were all convinced that it was al Qaeda’s second wave.” Exactly who in the administration and the federal government would be inoculated was known by the executive agents alone.

Now tested, BASIS needed to be transformed into an actual warning system. In a most unusual organizational arrangement, but one identical to its various hidden command lines of warrantless surveillance, torture, and secret prisons, Vice President Cheney’s office oversaw the creation of a new system called BioWatch, a network of detectors in Washington, DC, and other high-risk metropolitan areas. The government called it “detect-to-treat,” and it was to provide insight and warning in large cities and at indoor events such as presidential political conventions; the system was to alert law enforcement and public health officials whenever it recognized a biological agent that was not of natural origin, ideally before any exposed individuals developed symptoms of illness. What would actually happen then was unclear, but the greatest concentration of sensors was to be around the White House; BioWatch was not actually focused on saving millions of lives so much as on serving as part of an executive-agent early-warning system to take action. After all, only Washington, only the executive branch, only the White House, and then only select elements of the Program have the actual trained and ready capability to do anything should the system sniff out danger.

The idea of domestic samplers got its original shot in the arm in March 1995 when a Japanese cult called Aum Shinrikyo — an organization never previously heard of by U.S. intelligence — released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 and sickening another 5,000. A month later, Timothy McVeigh walked away from an explosives-filled truck parked outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the explosion killing 168 and injuring 851 others. And there were other events that year: also in March, four members of the Minnesota Patriots Council, an illegitimate militia organization, were convicted of conspiracy charges under the Biological Weapons Anti-terrorism Act of 1989 for planning to use ricin, a lethal biological toxin, to assassinate federal agents. In May, a member of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations was arrested in Ohio on charges of mail fraud and misrepresenting himself when attempting to order three vials of freeze-dried Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes bubonic plague, from a Maryland laboratory. In December, an Arkansas man was charged with possession of ricin in violation of the same bioterrorism act; he was arrested and hanged himself in his jail cell the next day.

When Aum Shinrikyo appeared, Presidential Decision Directive 39 (PDD-39) was already in draft; at the eleventh hour its focus and priority were taken over by weapons of mass destruction. In its finished form, that secret directive, since declassified by the Clinton Library, reaffirmed the FBI’s lead role in the United States, directing the Defense Department to ensure that its “counterterrorism capabilities” were well managed, funded, and exercised in support. “We shall have tailored, robust and rapidly deployable counterterrorism teams capable of incident management, intelligence collection, law enforcement, military operations, technical expertise and disaster relief activities,” the directive said. The FBI and DOD were directed to maintain “robust plans and capabilities rapidly to remove or destroy weapons of mass destruction in the hand of terrorists,” and the Defense Department was directed to examine “the command and control structure that would be applied in domestic military employment (given posse comitatus exemptions)” without further elaboration.

Though it would later be picked apart by committees and pundits for all that it didn’t do to prevent 9/11, what PDD-39 did do was sanctify the marriage of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. “The United States shall give the highest priority to developing capabilities to detect, prevent, defeat and manage the consequences of nuclear, biological or chemical materials or weapons used by terrorists,” the classified directive stated. The protocols for a so-called PDD-39 event were established — the very protocols applied in the nuclear scare with the Palermo Senator in New York Harbor seven years later.

Bill Clinton became a particularly prolific directive issuer after the events of 1995 and the emergence of al Qaeda. While the ABCs of foreign policy were humanitarian intervention and peacekeeping and even leftover dreams of a peace dividend, WMD and terrorism anchored the XYZs — Congress passed the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1996, its own word on the subject, levying a number of domestic requirements for greater readiness to respond to nuclear, chemical, and biological terrorism, particularly greater involvement by state-based National Guard teams.

While summering on Martha’s Vineyard in 1997, Clinton also read "The Cobra Event," a bioterrorism novel by Richard Preston, and grew ever more obsessed with the possibility of a biological warfare attack. He talked incessantly with his advisors and with outsiders about the potential for an out-of-control clandestine terrorist attack upon a U.S. city. Speaking to the graduating midshipmen at the Naval Academy, Clinton warned that American enemies “may deploy compact and relatively cheap weapons of mass destruction — not just nuclear, but also chemical or biological, to use disease as a weapon of war.” Clinton’s second secretary of defense, William Cohen, made a dramatic appearance on ABC’s "This Week" during which he placed a five-pound bag of sugar on the table and said that that amount of anthrax “would destroy at least half the population” of Washington. “One breath and you are likely to face death within five days,” he said.

BioWatch thus came into being on a clear continuum from a previous administration deeply enthralled — the initial aerosol detectors funded by Clinton. The list of possible culprits in the anthrax letters — al Qaeda, Iran, Iraq, even the Taliban, Tom Ridge says — and the October 18 scare and the later smallpox scare all had an impact on biological warfare preparedness in the same way that 9/11 changed counterterrorism: the program went from peacetime to wartime. A month after the smallpox intelligence, the White House held a conference call with thirty-three selected metropolitan areas, declaring that a countrywide biological agent threat was now considered tangible and immediate. Two weeks later in his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush alluded to BioWatch, stating that the U.S. had begun “deploying the nation’s first early warning network of sensors to detect a biological attack.”

In a period of just eight weeks, scientists installed a network of sniffers in the nation’s most populous cities, a half dozen federal agencies now involved, some of them active participants in national security matters for the first time. It would be the responsibility of the cities to manually collect the filters daily, transporting them to one of 160 laboratories within the National Response Laboratory Network — later the Integrated Consortium of Laboratory Networks — the majority lodged in universities now also enlisted in the country’s daily defense. The ability of BioWatch to detect three of the six top agents — anthrax, tularemia, and smallpox — was made public with the beginning of the war against Iraq in 2003, but the Washington-area monitors were also able to detect more than twenty different agents, some of them highly classified.

Biological warfare never came, and the Bush administration — at least many in the administration — even grew to accept that the WMD justification for the Iraq war was exaggerated (if not downright deceptive); the FBI determined that the anthrax mailings were the work of a domestic crazy (and incidentally a U.S. government employee); and now the Taliban and al Qaeda were also on the run, unlikely to ever develop their own “program.” Yet none of that ended the nightmare.

In April 2005, the Homeland Security Council published fifteen national planning scenarios, each meant to represent the “scope, magnitude, and complexity” of catastrophic events that might occur in the United States. The scenarios would guide future exercises and would help federal, state, and local agencies identify “core prevention and response requirements” to aid in preparedness planning. Five of the fifteen scenarios dealt with biological weapons and six others dealt with chemical and nuclear weapons; one dealt with a hurricane (Katrina being less than four months away).

Scenario Number 1 posited a ten-kiloton terrorist attack with an improvised nuclear device à la the Palermo Senator; estimated casualties: “hundreds of thousands.” The assumption of this nuclear calamity for homeland security planning purposes was a detonation in Washington, DC (at the corner of 17th and H Streets NW, to be precise), a variation on TOPOFF 4.

BioWatch was getting a baby brother: the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office was opened, jointly manned by military, FBI, customs, and scientific specialists from throughout the government and under the new Department of Homeland Security. The office would integrate all government research, development, testing, evaluation, acquisition, and operations of an integrated radiological detection system. DNDO’s network would “improve the Nation’s capability to detect and report unauthorized attempts to import, possess, store, develop, or transport nuclear or radiological material,” according to its mission statement.

When DNDO opened its doors in 2005, the customs service already managed 552 radiation portal monitors at land and sea ports of entry into the United States. Now they and others would be incorporated into a Global Nuclear Detection Architecture — a domestic portion and an overseas network. Congress newly authorized spending for radiation portal monitors that trucks would have to pass through at all points of entry along the U.S. border, a project that was scheduled to be complete by September 2009.

Little brother grew bigger: a radiation detector program for truck weighing stations throughout the country was added in 2008. DNDO also funded development of dozens of projects to develop long-range domestic detectors. Roadside Tracker was one, a 300-foot-range device designed to detect and identify radiation sources in vehicles over five lanes of traffic at speeds up to seventy miles per hour. Another conference call to the states, more memoranda of agreement, pilot programs in the Southeast, and soon a national network of nonfederal partners in WMD preparedness emerged.

Then came the beating of food into swords. The Bioterrorism Act, passed by Congress after the anthrax letters, dragooned the Food and Drug Administration into service with authorities to detect and respond to the possible adulteration of food products. A month later, the National Strategy for Homeland Security elevated the standing of the food sector overall.

One of the fifteen national planning scenarios produced in 2005 addressed food contamination — liquid anthrax bacteria delivered to terrorist accomplices in a meatpacking plant who would lace a shipment of ground beef before it was shipped off to local stores. The resulting illnesses posited — 500 fatalities — was pretty small potatoes given the size and scope of the biological and nuclear calamities, plus there had been only three domestic incidents of intentional food contamination in twenty years, the worst causing 751 illnesses and no deaths. Still, food constituted the largest civilian sector by far, and thus the planning scenario served to give the national security establishment the doctrine to begin to intrude into almost every corner of the economy, all under the name of WMD.

The FDA reported to Congress that there was a “high likelihood, over the course of a year, that a significant number of people will be affected by an act of food terrorism or by an incident of unintentional food contamination that results in serious foodborne illness.” The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology even came up with an argument that said that success in the war on terrorism increased the terrorist threat of biological warfare or food contamination, writing that “attacks on the food supply . . . could become a preferred means of attack in an environment where terrorist networks have been ‘decapitated’ and their ability to communicate and raise funds significantly diminished.”

In Homeland Security Presidential Directive 9, President Bush laid down the policy that the government would protect the food system from “terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies.” A successful attack on the nation’s agriculture or food system, the directive said, could have “catastrophic health and economic effects.” “I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson blurted out in 2004 on his way out the door.

The writers of the national planning scenarios gave it their best shot, but soon enough 500 fatalities were overtaken by an expanded and elaborated menu of what-ifs. One scientific study concluded that over 100,000 could be poisoned if a single milk truck was contaminated with one gram of botulinum type A toxin. The FDA estimated that 300,000 individuals could be debilitated in a national attack, saying that “a concerted, deliberate attack on food could be devastating, especially if a more dangerous chemical, biological, or radio-nuclear agent were used.”

When a National Infrastructure Protection Plan was published in 2006, food defense blew every other element of the so-called critical infrastructure away. A 2007 inspector general’s report discussed the enormity of the task: “The post-harvest food industry accounts for 12% of the nation’s economic activity and employs more than 10% of the American workforce.” It went on to point out that the nation’s $460-billion food retail business consists of more than 34,000 supermarkets, 13,000 smaller food markets, 1,000 wholesale club stores, 13,000 convenience stores, and, it calculated, 28,000 gas station food outlets. Restaurants added another 925,000 U.S. locations serving over 70 billion “meal and snack occasions” during the year. Protection of all of this, the IG said, was impractical in the extreme.A food defense program wasn’t out of the realm of government imagination; the problem, as seen through the eyes of the executive agents, was that much of the food-WMD critical infrastructure was privately owned and therefore outside regulatory control. “Vibrant cooperation and support between government and the private sector are needed,” the IG concluded, if the United States was to fully master and build its defenses.

BioWatch, DNDO, food defense — merely three more envoys of the apocalypse: nightmarish vulnerabilities turned into homeland security make-work and dogmas to indoctrinate the private sector into the primacy of defense and the need to standardize everything. In just two years after 9/11, federal government spending in preparation for Biological warfare increased by a factor of fifteen. The biological and chemical weapons workload at the Dugway Proving Ground increased almost eight times. BioWatch’s annual budget is more than $125 million a year; DNDO’s is triple that. Over the decade after 9/11, spending — federal, state, and local — on programs relating to biological, chemical, and nuclear defenses in the United States totaled as much as $25 billion a year, according to an independent strategic analysis firm. Spending to address just possible biological terrorist incidents during this stretch was about $57 billion, equal to about 10 percent of what the federal government spent during the same period on public health. Warren Stern, director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, told Congress in early 2011 that countering nuclear terrorism was a “whole-of-government challenge” and that his office was working with federal, state, local, international, and private-sector partners. “In every layer and pathway we will seek to increase detection coverage and capability and deter terrorists from planning or attempting nuclear terrorism,” he said. Particularly challenging were scenarios including “threat pathways” that involved noncommercial general aviation, maritime craft under 300 tons, and the borders between the official ports of entry. More investment was needed, DNDO said, because “False alarms can be onerous for the many legitimate transporters of radioactive materials on America’s roadways, at its ports, and in its storage facilities, not to mention bulk transporters hauling scrap metal, granite, bananas, and even kitty litter — all of which emit isotope signals that sensors can pick up as ‘hot.’”

“The threat is determined and patient, will attempt to use our freedoms against us, will search for any path to produce violent events, and harbors no qualms about killing innocent men, women, and children to achieve its objectives,” said Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Jr., the Obama-selected commander of Northern Command and later Obama’s vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. WMD was first on Winnefeld’s list of domestic concerns.

They were destroyers in more ways than one, these weapons of mass destruction. They threatened everyone, or so it seemed, and thus were the perfect accompaniment to a lifetime of extraordinary response. But they were also phantoms, purveyors of fear that allowed a permanent and unassailable shift from the general welfare to national security. Warning mechanisms and special preparations could blanket the land, but even there, true security was unattainable, the treadmill of inertia thus another tool to benefit a select few who toiled between the lines, going through the motions of safeguarding the ABCs.

Excerpted from "American Coup:How a Terrified Government is Destroying the Constitution," chapter 7, by William M. Arkin. Copyright 2013. Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

William M. Arkin

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