Weapons of Mass Confusion

Though Stewart is one of the best-trained soldiers in the U.S. military, the unit he commands–the National Guard’s 3rd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team–has not yet been certified by the Defense Department as ready for duty. Neither have any of the other 26 teams strategically stationed across the country, ostensibly ready to deploy anywhere within four hours of an attack. What’s more, if the Guard’s civil support teams were activated before an attack, there’s a very good chance that no one would call them. Arriving as they would hours after an attack, the team’s jaw-dropping skills would do little good to local emergency officials who would be on the scene in minutes. In practical terms, after three years and $143 million, the National Guard’s civil support teams are a solution in search of a problem. They’re also symptomatic of a broader issue: The billions of dollars spent to prepare for an attack has only created an expensive and uncoordinated mess.

The Tokyo sarin gas attack launched by a Japanese cult on March 20, 1995, shook military and emergency management officials. Though chemical and biological weapons have existed for decades, the Tokyo attack was the first time terrorists used them so successfully. Such attacks usually failed in the past because dispersing a chemical agent quickly and thoroughly enough to harm large numbers of people is difficult. Members of Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo cult recognized this and placed open bags of the lethal nerve agent in the subway, where rush-hour trains quickly pushed the deadly air through miles of tunnels. But what really worried foreign governments was the cult’s scientific expertise. Aum Shinrikyo had a $30 million chemical and biological weapons program that included multiple weapons plants and more than 100 scientists, researchers, and technicians working to develop chemical and biological toxins. The cult also had plans to unleash the chemicals on Washington, D.C. and New York City. U.S. officials were appropriately alarmed. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) cautioned after the Aum Shinrikyo attack, “It’s just a question of time before someone attempts that sort of thing [here].”

The Tokyo attack jumpstarted a determined effort by the federal government to prepare for a similar attack on U.S. soil. The main vehicle in Congress was the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1996, better known as the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Act. It established the framework for a domestic terrorism defense against “weapons of mass destruction”–nuclear, chemical, and biological. The law was intended to shore up the nation’s vulnerability by rapidly preparing a frontline of local emergency workers who would be the first to encounter an attack. The law also established a domestic preparedness program, run by the Pentagon, to teach local officials in 120 cities how to respond to an “unconventional” attack. It created specialized military response teams to identify the agent and medical response teams to vaccinate and decontaminate victims. And it proposed annual training exercises to teach local, state, and national responders to work together.

The slogan “Not if, but when” became a government mantra. Just weeks after the Tokyo attack, President Bill Clinton issued Presidential Decision Directive 39, aimed at improving national response capability and strengthening the government’s ability to manage the consequences of an unconventional attack. Congress held hearings in which lawmakers debated what could be done. Government agencies took turns explaining what they’d need to address deficiencies. (Insiders speculate they were aided by Clinton’s fondness for terrorism novels, including Richard Preston’s The Cobra Event about a biological attack on New York.) Afterwards, Clinton and Congress demonstrated their commitment in the best way politicians know–by throwing money at the problem.

The government’s sudden emphasis on terrorism, with new funding to back it up, created an environment ripe for pork. A bidding war in Congress quickly ensued. “There was a rush on Capitol Hill,” says a senior researcher at a nonpartisan national security think tank. “There were literally dozens of agencies whispering in lawmakers’ ears that their organizations could do the job and, in turn, make that congressman look good for choosing them.” The National Guard’s civil support teams sprang from these sessions. But they were hardly alone. Other agencies that won funding included the Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Army, Air Force, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Justice Department, Energy Department, Agriculture Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services. Even the National Park Service managed to exploit the terrorism threat by commissioning a $400,000 study that revealed “the vulnerability of the national monuments.” In the end, more than 40 agencies, overseen by a dozen congressional committees, received a role in the nation’s terrorism defense plan. The waste was enormous. The Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Act spawned 90 different programs for the single purpose of training local officials. Today they compete just to find clients. “The money went everywhere,” says one former defense contractor, who requested anonymity. “But the Guard [teams] were the worst of the bad ideas.”

Ft. Indiantown Gap National Guard Base is carved out of the mountains in the dreary, wet climate of Southeastern Pennsylvania near the Appalachian Trail. Though the base is centered around a sprawling helicopter field, the newest asset in the fight against terrorism is housed a short drive away in a nondescript warehouse that is home to Lt. Col. Stewart’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team.

Civil support teams embody George W. Bush’s frequent pledge to modernize the armed forces to face 21st century problems. Originally, they were called RAID teams, for Rapid Assessment and Initial Detection, which is a pretty good description of what they’re intended to do. In the event of a chemical or biological attack, local officials would call in the nearest RAID team, whose members would don Level-A hazardous materials (HAZMAT) suits, grab a sample of the deadly agent, identify it in their $500,000 mobile laboratory van, and broadcast their findings to federal officials and scientists through a $1.3 million mobile unified command suite. Once they’d done this, they’d pack up and go home; responsibility for rescue and medical care lies elsewhere.

Stewart’s team covers Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. To perform their mission, his soldiers need a staggering level of expertise. While most hazardous materials teams require 40 hours of training for certification, civil support teams mandate 1,200 hours. Most team members bring specialized skills from prior military service or the private sector. (Stewart was a college professor.) Many hold advanced degrees and are working toward additional ones. Even the team’s physician’s assistant is a Ph.D. What team members lack is an opportunity to put these skills to use. Although the 27 civil support teams commissioned by Congress were supposed to be active by this spring, they have been plagued by a series of government reports criticizing their preparedness and management, and bluntly questioning their existence. The problem with civil support teams is that they suffer from a crippling design flaw: They probably couldn’t arrive at an attack scene in time to do much good.

Although the Guard claims it can deploy a team anywhere in the country within four hours of an attack, local emergency officials, and even some Guardsmen, suggest that six to 24 hours is a more realistic estimate. In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, for example, the first wave of federal assistance didn’t arrive for 10 hours. By contrast, local fire and police teams arrive in minutes and begin rescue operations. To fulfill their designated function, the Guard seems to assume that local responders will wait for their arrival before attempting a rescue, a prospect one fire chief calls “utter nonsense.”

There are also questions about why the teams are designed to detect biological agents. Unlike a chemical attack, a biological attack probably wouldn’t manifest itself for days. When it did, chances are the local medical community–not the military–would detect it when victims began to seek treatment for symptoms. (New York City, which has a response plan that is the envy of the country, scrupulously monitors sales of diarrhea medication as an indicator that a biological attack may have occurred.) Of course, once doctors knew what they were dealing with, they wouldn’t need the National Guard to swoop in and tell them. So it’s hard to envision a scenario in which civil support teams could help. As the General Accounting Office noted in a report highly critical of the Guard, “The plan was developed without the benefit of an analytically sound threat and risk assessment.”

If a Guard team did arrive in time to help, it’s not clear that they’d be able to. The teams boast state-of-the-art equipment but no guarantee it will work. An Inspector General’s report released in January criticized free-spending Guard officials who ignored Pentagon procedure even though they lacked the qualifications to buy the highly specialized equipment. As a result, the Guard mistakenly purchased incompatible equipment. In the case of an air-purifying respirator, for example, investigators discovered that the mask didn’t match up with the blower. “It probably would work,” one team commander speculated, “I’m just not willing to bet my life on it.” Breathing would have been equally treacherous inside the mobile laboratory vans. Inspectors discovered that the air filters were installed backward. The Guard teams were so flush with funding, in fact, that their orgy of acquisitions netted too much equipment to fit into their vans. One team alleviated this problem–sort of–by pitching a tent next to the van and running an extension cord to power the lab’s microscope.

Maj. Gen. Thomas Lynch, who runs Ft. Indiantown Gap, has no qualms about discussing these shortcomings. “No one here disagrees with the problems the Inspector General’s report described,” he declares flatly. Sitting in his office framed by the imposing landscape, Lynch is a figure straight out of central casting. He has a booming voice and a commanding presence, and he speaks in the straightforward manner of one accustomed to being in charge. Yet he bristles at the question of who is responsible for the problems. Lynch points out that his team was still in the training process when Army inspectors made their visit. He said the team addressed the problems before applying for certification last October. That was nearly seven months ago. And since then? “We’ve heard nothing,” he replies. Lynch plainly believes that most of the problems are a result of poor conceptualization, the responsibility for which lies in Washington. He has a good point. Five years after the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Act set things in motion, the preparedness problem has come full circle. Congress still funds anything involving terrorism defense, but the Pentagon hasn’t explained how it plans to marshal the nation’s forces to respond to an attack.

The Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Act was the catalyst in the war against chemical and biological terrorism. But the funding process it set in motion demonstrates how quickly good plans can go awry without sufficient fiscal oversight. Counterterrorism, for which no budget figures are available prior to 1995, suddenly had $6.7 billion allotted to it in 1996. Agencies lined up to compete for coveted missions and funding. How the National Guard convinced Congress to fund civil support teams is a classic example of how Washington really works.

The National Guard’s mission had been shrinking for years because of post-Cold War cuts in the military. In Washington, an agency’s strength is measured by its level of funding. The Guard’s was diminishing. Guard officials recognized terrorism response as an opportunity to fight back. “National Guard headquarters went after this mission with a vengeance, but they got the RAID teams in over their heads,” says Dr. Amy Smithson, a senior associate specializing in chemical and biological nonproliferation issues for the nonpartisan Henry L. Stimson Center. “The defense contractors basically helped Guard officials cook up a concept that was doomed to fail.” The civil support teams require full-time, highly specialized soldiers–not a strength of the National Guard, which draws mainly on part-timers. “The Guard is comprised mostly of weekend warriors,” Smithson explains. “For them to have a high-profile mission that requires full-time personnel increases their stature.”

Guard officials had help from powerful advocates: defense contractors and members of Congress happy to let a bad idea go forward in exchange for their own slice of the funding pie. The National Guard commissioned a $10-million study from defense contractor Science Applications International Corporation to explore the Guard’s role in the counterterrorism effort. As a defense contractor, SAIC had plenty to gain from a military buildup and surprised no one by determining that the Guard was integral to the nation’s preparedness.

But the report failed to consider existing federal and local programs that could have formed the backbone of the nation’s response capability. The Marines and the FBI, for example, each have special units to respond to nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks. Other agencies that have experience in this area include the Coast Guard National Strike Force, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Response Team, the Air Force Prime Base Engineering Emergency Force (acronym: Prime BEEF), and the Army’s original Technical Escort Unit–a team of “chemical cowboys” formed in 1943 to escort chemical weapons transports. Each of these is part of an infrastructure for disaster relief that was in place long before unconventional terrorism became a national focus. If Congress had cared to look, it would have discovered that existing assets were surprisingly well suited to respond to a chemical or biological situation.

Instead, Congress eagerly approved dozens of expensive new programs. Not surprisingly, the General Accounting Office recently found that numerous federal programs essentially do the same thing. Despite the fact that Ft. McClellan in Alabama could easily train the nation’s bomb technicians, for instance, the National Guard is building its own $60 million training facility at Camp Dawson, West Virginia. Rather than question the need for a new facility, West Virginia senator, Robert Byrd, who is famous for bringing home the federal bacon, added $5 million to the program. “When you get right down to it,” says a Republican legislative aide who specializes in counterterrorism, “if the Justice and Defense departments are spending money on the same technology, one can’t just tell the other to stop, because then you wind up in a cat fight.” Not surprisingly, the GAO discovered that interservice rivalry led to poor communication between agencies that were more interested in competing for missions and resources than preparing a coherent counterterrorism plan.

To the Guard, this has often meant going to ridiculous lengths to hide shortcomings and inexperience. For major training exercises in Denver, Colo. and Portsmouth, N.H., for instance, civil support teams were flown in a day ahead of time, even though the drills were meant to simulate a surprise attack. In another case, Guard teams arrived at a training drill with price tags still affixed to their equipment. The teams’ constantly shifting guidelines cast further doubt on their effectiveness. Civil support teams were originally supposed to be stationed near Air National Guard bases so they could fly to attack sites in minutes. But a later draft of those plans required team members to drive their own cars. After studying civil support teams for nearly two years and interviewing hundreds of federal, state, and local officials, Dr. Smithson published a report in October that concluded the teams were “bulldozing amateurs prone to embarrassing technical gaffes,” and recommended they be disbanded immediately. Instead, Congress authorized five new teams.

Critical reports have gradually seeped through the walls of the Pentagon. But rather than take stock of the civil support teams, officials simply updated the sales pitch. The Pentagon is still pushing the Guard teams, only now it emphasizes their user-friendly “support” role. To distance itself from the original concept of chemical-sniffing commandos, the Guard changed the name “RAID teams” to the less-ominous sounding “Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams.” That’s not all. “We’ve painted our trucks navy blue rather than camouflage or black in order not to alarm citizens,” said Col. Timothy Bartholomew, the team’s liaison to emergency officials, motioning toward a row of sleek, new Chevy Suburban trucks outside the team’s headquarters. “We’re here to help.”

Lt. Col. Stewart is a determined soldier. In his company, you get the sense he could single-handedly drive his team to any realistic measure of certification. But Stewart has a hard time containing his frustration when quizzed about the team’s problems. His exasperation is easy to understand. Many of the difficulties stem from the compressed timeline in which the civil support teams were formed. Because of the government’s premium on improving homeland defense, a process that might have taken four years was attempted in two.

The Guard says that most of the equipment problems cited in government reports have been addressed. But Stewart and his supervisors must be equally frustrated with the problems they can’t fix. For one thing, the Guard is uniquely unsuited to run such teams. The Guard traditionally draws on a host of easily replaced and interchangeable part-timers, but civil support teams depend on highly trained and expensive full-timers. The Inspector General’s report noted that, because most enlisted men serve three-year cycles, the members of the 10 original civil support teams will soon rotate to other assignments without ever having been certified. The level of expertise that Guard teams require also makes it difficult to keep them fully staffed. Team members are so well-trained that if they don’t leave out of frustration, they often leave for better jobs. “They’ve got skills that every emergency manager in the country wants to have and they’re not using them,” said Edward Plaugher, fire chief of Arlington, Va. “Why stay in the Guard for $30,000 a year when you can work on a local HAZMAT team for $80,000 and use your skills on a daily basis?” Consequently, civil support teams have whopping attrition rates. Stewart’s team has already lost more than 30 percent of its original members, a figure that is actually low compared with other teams. The Guard couldn’t provide total attrition rates, but emergency officials report hearing rates twice that high. On Stewart’s team, only 18 of the 22 positions are currently filled–“bare minimum operating capacity,” admits Maj. Gen. Lynch. In effect, the National Guard is training its civil support teams right out the door.

Congress has all but ignored the overwhelming shortcomings in the nation’s readiness plan. Redundant programs are regularly funded by lawmakers who are either unaware of or unwilling to address the problems. And the White House can’t do much under current circumstances. The GAO has recommended that the person who oversees the nation’s preparedness effort, the “terrorism czar,” take a look at whether the teams are needed. That person is Richard Clarke, officially the National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-Terrorism. “The problem is that Richard Clarke has got a lofty title without fiscal authority,” said one former defense contractor, who still works in the field and requested anonymity. Because Clarke doesn’t have any influence over the agencies that can request funds, he has little power over Congress. Instead, numerous committees hear from dozens of agencies and regularly approve unnecessary programs because they simply have no one to stop them. “The drug czar can bring federal agencies to heel,” said a legislative aide who specializes in national security. “He has the power to say no.’ Clarke doesn’t have that power.”

The nation’s readiness also suffers because Clarke lacks the ability to create necessary programs. Local officials have been begging the federal government to help with the medical fallout that will inevitably follow an unconventional attack. At a time when flu season leaves hospitals overwhelmed, the prospect of what would happen after a chemical attack is frightening. Dr. Smithson discovered that most hospitals lack the resources to decontaminate more than a handful of victims and would actually lock their doors in the event of a chemical attack rather than risk infecting patients. Yet discussion of preparedness typically ignores the medical response problem.

Leaving it to the private sector means accepting the status quo. In an era of privatized health care, getting hospitals to spend money on an event they view as unlikely simply isn’t feasible. As one emergency manager noted, most local health-care officials consider the chance of an unconventional terrorist attack to be “a step above an alien invasion.” In the unlikely event that hospital administrators actually run emergency drills, they’re usually forced to use “foamies”–foam cutouts of people, rather than live subjects.

When Congress first addressed the nation’s vulnerability, the focus was at the local level. They’d be wise to return it there. Of the $8.4 billion spent on terrorism defense last year, only $315 million went to train and equip frontline responders. “I’ve got a whole fire department fully equipped and fully prepared to do what the Guard is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to do. When I look at the teams and see what they’re bringing me, I already have those needs filled,” says Plaugher of his Arlington fire department. “I can’t think of any reason why I would ever call them.”

Returning resources to local responders makes sense for a lot of reasons. Local HAZMAT teams deal with accidents on a regular basis. They’ll be first on the scene of an attack, and could make better use of the civil support teams’ detection and assessment capabilities. This would benefit communities by improving the response to all HAZMAT emergencies, not just terrorist attacks. Local officials are also increasingly attuned to the problem. The number of weapons of mass destruction threats called in to firefighters, police, and the FBI has risen fivefold since 1996. Local officials are also better situated to handle the most likely type of terrorist attack, which is different from the one in Tokyo and more likely to cause serious harm. Rather than try to create and deploy weaponized chemicals, experts believe terrorists will try to sabotage one of the 850,000 facilities in the United States that work with hazardous substances. This would preclude the need for the resources Aum Shinrikyo possessed and could easily be more deadly. (The 1984 Union Carbide chemical leak in Bhopal, India, that killed 3,800 people was likely the result of sabotage by a disgruntled worker.) Furthermore, a compromise reached last August between watchdog groups and chemical companies let the EPA post highly sensitive hazardous-materials data on the Internet, in what seemed like a victory for the good guys because it would let communities know about local health risks. But now that the EPA can list the location of hazardous materials facilities, along with data on worst-case accident scenarios, they have practically created a blueprint for such an attack. As part of the same settlement, state and local commissions will be required to create 50 nationwide reading rooms for exactly this purpose, accessible to terrorists and environmentalists alike.

The other key to preparedness is reassigning the National Guard to fill a crucial need: medical readiness. The Guard traditionally operates in a role of support, and although it isn’t a military operation, as Guard leaders might prefer, it is a mission for which they’re uniquely qualified. According to the Army’s Surgeon General, 70 percent of the Army’s medical forces are in the Guard or the Reserves. Assigning the Guard to medical response would take some of the pressure off hospitals and have broad benefits beyond terrorism. A crack Guard team that can convert an armory into a 1,000-bed hospital in the wake of a terrorist attack can do the same thing for an earthquake, flood, or accident that demands a similar level of emergency care. “They have every capability,” says Plaugher, “highly trainable people, equipment, resources, Guard centers, armories. They could do a remarkable job filling some of our greatest needs.”

The good news is that President George W. Bush may be better equipped to implement these changes than his predecessor. He could start with a favorite issue: accountability. Giving the terrorism czar fiscal authority would make him accountable, while allowing him to eliminate costly and redundant programs. Taking a hard look at civil support teams also fits with Bush’s ongoing review of the military. Bush, who is eager to channel education funding directly to local schools, should propose a similar plan for terrorism defense in order to shift resources to frontline responders. Improving local response capabilities meshes with Bush’s desire to refocus the military toward 21st-century problems; eliminating wasteful federal programs could free up the money to pay for it.

The president has shown himself adept at talking up issues close to his heart. He could sell terrorism defense the same way he’s selling his tax cut–by talking up the disintegration of the Middle East peace process, the growing menace of Osama bin Laden, and the aggressive stance his own administration is expected to take toward Iraq. After all, Bush has justified spending trillions of dollars on an unproven missile defense system, which he said is needed to protect against the risk of a nuclear attack. Surely he can spare a few hundred million for the far more likely possibility of a biological or chemical terrorist attack.

Click here to check out the United States Domestic Preparedness Program Orgazational Chart Joshua Greenis an editor of The Washington Monthly. You can email him byclicking hereor read his other articles byclicking here

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Joshua Green

Joshua Green is a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek, a CNN political analyst, and the author of Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Nationalist Uprising. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2001 to 2003.