TCS Daily


'Be prepared,' Defense Science Board Chairman Tells Nation

By William Schneider - October 1, 2001 12:00 AM

"The danger has not passed" of another terrorist assault, William Schneider, Jr. who head's the Defense Science Board of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, told Tech Central Station Host James K. Glassman. He says the nation needs a balanced approach to counter threats, including terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction. Among the keys: more funding but also better use of existing funds to counter terrorism; support for missile defense to foreclose that avenue eventually, and engagement abroad to deter and suppress terrorist activity. "We have a much better chance of engaging and deterring or, where deterrence fails, suppressing the terrorists if we're engaged abroad rather than waiting until they get to the United States and do their damage."

Jim Glassman: A lot of Americans are kind of waiting for another shoe to drop, and by that I don't necessarily mean a response by our military, but another terrorist attack maybe within a short period of time. Do you think that that's likely, or in a sort of tactical or strategic sense whoever perpetrated this might wait before they try it again?

William Schneider: I think it's certainly possible, first because of the cell structure of the terrorists' entities. These are semi-autonomous, with their own agendas as distinct from a single, centrally controlled operation. As a consequence, it's quite possible that some of the cells that have not been rolled up might try a second effort to inflict mass casualties. Certainly the warnings we've had in the recent past about hazardous material, truck driving licenses, and crop-sprayers suggest that the danger has not passed. I think it's certainly prudent to be prepared for the possibility that another assault might be made of us.

Glassman: In testimony in 1999, you said that terrorist use of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD), especially biological weapons, was "an important threat." In recent days the administration has barred the flight of crop-dusting airplanes after finding evidence that some of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 events might have been trying to find ways to use them. How real is the threat of such terrorists' use of weapons of mass destruction?

Schneider: The threat is certainly a justifiable source of concern. First, since the end of the Cold War, the interest in biological weapons, especially by countries that traffic in terrorism as well, has increased substantially and the technology of producing biological weapons is relatively well understood and quite accessible. What is not so well known is how you can convert these very dangerous bio-organisms into weapons and this is where the research of countries like Iraq and others is an important pathway to creating this threat. So I think the caution that the government has expressed in trying to limit the access to crop-dusters, which is, of course, one way in which bio-organisms could be distributed is a justified initiative.

Glassman: At this stage, would you say that the use of crop-dusters would be the most likely avenue for delivery?

Schneider: No, I think it's only one way of distributing it in the sense that it is something that looks like ordinary commercial product -- you have crop-dusters all over the country. So, if one of them were loaded up with some bio-toxin in some way and were used as an instrument of terror, that would be something attractive to the terrorists. But it's by no means the only way. Biotoxins can be explosively distributed by putting them in an aircraft and detonating the aircraft in such a way that these organisms would be spread over a wide area, or they could be surreptitiously put into a region in a way that would not be known until you began to have an unusually large number of people who were the victim of a particular disease, or it could be done against crops or animals.

Glassman: Are terrorists right now in a position in a feasible way to deliver these weapons?

Schneider: That's, of course, the $64,000 question as to what is the level of maturity of the technology to which terrorists groups would have access. And I don't think it's well known, and hence the tension that exists over some of these reports of fraudulent acquisition of hazardous-material drivers' licenses, and some evidence that people associated with terrorists activities have sought access to crop-dusters. But I don't think anyone knows, at this stage, whether terrorist groups actually have a serious capability to deal with this. We do know that over time the capability is likely to improve because many of the countries on which the terrorists have come to depend are working on biological weapons and the technology has been leaking out of some countries that have these capabilities. It's bound to be a more serious problem over time.

Glassman: You also noted in 1999 that the risk, "the risk of discovery of efforts by terrorists to use WMD, weapons of mass destruction, against the U.S. by law enforcement and intelligent organizations is much higher than the probability of intercepting a ballistic missile once it has been launched." Critics of missile defense say that the Sept. 11 assaults show that the government needs to put more into fighting terrorism and not into missile defense. How do you respond to that?

Schneider: The United States is vulnerable to some of these threats in a number of ways, and I think you have to step back and see what is happening here. The terrorist organizations desire to inflict mass casualties on the United States for their purposes. And as a consequence of that interest, they will look for any way they can find to do that. We have spent an enormous amount of money on dealing with the aerial piracy problem, for example. Yet, despite the investment of vast sums in airport security, a problem that we've been facing for 30 years, the combination of the culture of Middle East suicide bombing and aerial piracy were joined in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. If we are successful in tightening up airport security such that this is not an appealing route, then they will look for other routes that will enable them to inflict mass casualties.

Glassman: And one such route could be missiles?

Schneider: If we don't have effective missile defense than that will eventually become a route that will be chosen to inflict these casualties so we cannot allow ourselves to have these conspicuous vulnerabilities across the spectrum. We can't allow ourselves to be vulnerable to aerial piracy, and we can't allow ourselves to be vulnerable to missile attack. We need to put some balance in the investment here, and we're spending almost $12 billion s this year on counter-terrorism, and less than half that on missile defense. It's not the counter-terrorism isn't important. Indeed, we need to do much better, probably with additional money but also with much greater effectiveness of how we spend this $12 billion, which is now spread over 46 agencies.

Glassman: I wanted to ask you about that because of the vulnerabilities that critics have talked about is, obviously, the lack of human intelligence. In general we are spending a lot of money on our counter-terrorism effort, but it may be damaged by the fact that its difficult to get all these agencies to communicate. Do you have ideas about how to solve that problem?

Schneider: Yes, there are some models out there that can give us a better handle on it. One concept, which has been used in the past, is to give an agency with the greatest capability the lead agency responsibility. That agency would lead the government effort in some way by being responsible for communicating with those other agencies that have some capabilities and responsibilities for dealing with the problem. Those agencies then would not rely on some informal coordination between the agencies but instead leave the responsibility to the lead agency. Another model, which is not necessarily mutually exclusive with the lead agency concept, is to have a centralized authority deal with it. The president has proposed creation of a position in the White House at the Cabinet level, but not a Cabinet department, that would be responsible for the mission of homeland defense. Its responsibilities, as I understand it, would entail coordination among the multitude of agencies that are involved. I think this approach can work, especially if that coordination effort focuses the responsibility on an agency or two that have the most capability and begins to reinforce the ability of that agency to really take the lead in the government on the problem.

Glassman: It really was not clear from what the president had to say what the powers of Tom Ridge (the governor of Pennsylvania who has been chosen to head the agency on homeland defense) will be, whether he would be able to direct some of the budget of the CIA or the military?

Schneider: It hasn't been spelled out yet. As a practical matter, the funds for government agencies are appropriated through 13 appropriation bills and they are not appropriated to an official in the White House. The official in the White House, under this circumstance, would have coordination responsibility, unless the president and Congress agreed to, in effect, create a new Cabinet department that would have it's own appropriation act and would take over some of these responsibilities. That is something that could be done, although the president did not give indication that that was the direction he was heading in his remarks on the subject.

Glassman: The terrorist assault has often been called a "wake-up call," and you, yourself, in an article in January of this year, noted that there are symptoms of complacency, that was your term, evident then in the face of new threats on the Cold War. How has the end of the Cold War made the world in some ways more dangerous?

Schneider: It's done so in several ways. First when not only the Soviet empire but also many parts of what was the previous Soviet empire collapsed, it set in motion centrifugal forces in a number of areas in the world, including the Middle East. That, in effect, has created new regional power centers that have, in turn, had their own regional interest that are no longer tied to the East-West struggle as they were during the Cold War. These regional interests in some countries that have a hostile relationship with the United States include wanting to keep the United States out of the region and prevent it from intervening, as in Desert Storm, for example. To do this has caused these countries to try and acquire ways of deterring the United States. And, so, in some cases, such as Iraq, for example, they've sought to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and long-range ballistic missiles to deliver them. At the same time, they have also encouraged, facilitated and supported trans-national terrorism as another instrument of their foreign policy aimed largely at the United States. So, this has tended to make the world actually more dangerous by shifting the world from being bipolar, in the sense of the United States and the Soviet Union being the major players, to one where there are multiple centers of power which are able to leverage modern technology to create quite dangerous threats.

Glassman: You've mentioned Iraq a couple of times now. Do you think that whatever military response the United States makes in the next few weeks or months should be directed against Iraq as well as against Afghanistan?

Schneider: Iraq is part of the terrorist infrastructure of transnational terrorism. It has served their interest to facilitate the movement in support of terrorists. If the United States wishes to rid itself of the transnational terrorist threat, it needs to go after the infrastructure and not just the terrorists. And Iraq is part of that and needs to be on the list if that strategy is going to be pursued.

Glassman: And when you say infrastructure, what do you mean by that? The factories that are producing biological weapons, for example?

Schneider: It can include the facilities that provide weapons to the terrorists. It includes the diplomatic and political cover that's given to facilitate the movement of the terrorists. It includes the sanctuary that terrorists are able to obtain in these countries, the ability to recruit the conduits to finance their operations, and so forth. It's that infrastructure that sustains the ability of terrorists to generate through any process that produces aggrieved parties against the United States to become weapons of statecraft against American interests and, indeed, against American citizens. Unless we successfully are able to go after the infrastructure of trans-national terrorism, we're likely to find this to be an enduring 21st Century problem.

Glassman: Some commentators have said that the United States is targeted by terrorists because of our involvement in the world, and they even urge a more isolationist stance. How do you respond to that?

Schneider: There are several reasons why I think that would be a mistaken policy. First, an isolationist posture on our part would severely limit the potential for economic growth and development, and that would scarcely be in our interest. Our interest is served by maintaining the environment for economic and commercial dynamism in the world and that requires U.S. involvement, not isolation. Second, the isolation would scarcely produce any protection because it isn't merely the fact of our involvement but it's our existence that's seen as a threat. We have a much better chance of engaging and deterring or, where deterrence fails, suppressing the terrorists if we're engaged abroad rather than waiting until they get to the United States and do their damage.

Glassman: Thank you very much.

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