Catastrophe Management

Michael Chertoff tells Atlantic contributor Stuart Taylor Jr. what it's like to run the Department of Homeland Security. The full transcript

The fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is coming up. Are we much better prepared to prevent or respond to another attack on that scale now than then?

Yes. We've got locked cockpit doors, much better airline security. Our port security is much better. We've got much better intelligence sharing than we had before. Our response capabilities are better. So we've dramatically elevated our defenses, and the proof of the pudding, to some extent, is the fact that we haven't had a successful attack here since then. And it's certainly not for want of Al-Qaeda wanting to carry out missions of terror, because we've seen it done all over the world.

But that's not to be complacent. As the arrests of would-be terrorists in Canada in early June make clear, you can get homegrown foreign-inspired terrorist groups. So we have to make sure not only that we're continuing to build up our defenses against a traditional al-Qaeda attack, but also that we're looking at how terrorism is morphing. We have to look at the onset of virtual terrorism—virtual jihad—where groups radicalize themselves over the Internet, train themselves over the Internet, and then go out and commit acts of terror. We may never see them travel to Pakistan or travel to other places where they go to training camps.

A leading expert on nuclear terrorism named Graham Allison, a former Defense official, said two years ago in a speech, "If the U.S. government and others just keep doing what we're doing, a nuclear 9/11 is more likely than not in the decade ahead." Too pessimistic?

I know and respect Graham. I agree with him that, for all the attention that gets paid publicly sometimes to things like rail security and people potentially blowing themselves up in shopping centers, from the standpoint of the long-term strategic effort at security, we have to really make sure we get focused on investing and preventing weapons of mass destruction from attacking. As bad as a conventional attack would be, a nuclear attack would be earth-shattering. The good news is that it's not something that's likely to happen next week, but it does require a sustained investment.

The one thing we did within a matter of a week or so after I came in was we set up what we call the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which was the designation of an element that would bring together and put into place a long-term strategy for detecting and ultimately protecting ourselves against a nuclear device coming into this country. That means putting into place research on next-level technology, but also plans and programs to deploy and operate nuclear detection equipment, not only at our borders and our ports, but even within the country. The vision here being that within the next decade we'll have a comprehensive approach to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons that begins overseas with attempting to make sure that no one gets their hands on the weapons and raising security levels in other countries [and] at home involves layers of protection at the border and within the country to detect radioactive material.

Now, this is not an overnight project. On the other hand, because as Graham says, we're looking at a threat that may be years if not decades out. We have the time if we don't waste it. One of the big legacy items for me in this Department is making sure I put into place a vigorous and fast effort to ramp up our response to the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Suppose, heaven forbid, that a radioactive dirty bomb goes off this afternoon in Washington or Boston or New York or wherever. Or suppose that you do receive credible intelligence that Al-Qaeda has smuggled an atomic bomb into one of those cities. It hasn't gone off yet. Not that one. Precisely, how would the DHS react? In particular, I've been told that very little has been done to prepare and rehearse detailed evacuation plans and the like.

Actually, one of the things we did in Topoff 3, which is one of the series of higher-level exercises that the government has run on an annual basis, is work on catastrophic scenarios and exercise—not only top officials but operational units—[and] on what we would do to respond to various threats. In some there have been rehearsals for potential nuclear detonations [and] for radiological detonations. Last year, the scenario involved a biological dispersal of a biological agent in New Jersey and Connecticut. So we have actually worked exercises through this and we do have planning in place.

It would, of course, not only be a DHS effort. If we had a radiological device that was dispersed, we would be coordinating with the Department of Defense, with the Department of Justice, with state and local officials, with Health and Human Services—because every one of these agencies would have a role to play. We would come together and manage this in a crisis group that would deploy all these resources based on the planning that's been done as quickly as possible. The threat of a nuclear device which hasn't been detonated presents again a similar need to manage the crisis, but not a focus on response as much as a focus on prevention. But this is the kind of threat that we are working on every day, as far as our planning is concerned and as far as our exercising is concerned, and as far as our grants and our training are concerned.

The EPA estimated a few years ago that more than a hundred privately-owned facilities in this country full of toxic chemicals like chlorine could each put a million people at risk if attacked. Also, more than seven hundred such facilities could put at least 100,000 people at risk. Economic experts say that, because the chance that any one of those facilities will be attacked is small, the owners' local governments lack adequate incentives to invest enough money in securing them. If they did, they would be at a competitive disadvantage with others who weren't making expenditures. Yet this administration seems to have disregarded this basic economic logic and has left security largely to the owners and the local governments. Doesn't that guarantee inadequate security?

I'm not sure I agree with the statistics about the number of plants that put certain populations at risk, but I do agree with the basic point that the danger you have in the chemical industry and some other industries is what they call the "freeloader effect": somebody figures they're hiding in the weeds, and everybody else is raising security, and therefore they don't have to. That's why the administration has come out to support chemical security legislation. The idea of the legislation would be to segment the chemical industry into various tiers depending on the riskiness of the chemicals. And at the highest tiers, we would set performance standards. We'd say, "Here are the things you have to be able to protect against and respond to," and then we would sanction those facilities that failed to live up to those performance standards and set into place a regime of ordering them and inspecting them to make sure that they're living up to them.

We've been working with Senators Collins and Lieberman, who are interested in that kind of legislation. Like with anything else, you get a little bit of disagreement on the details. But I am the first person to tell you, I think this year we owe the American people a chemical security bill that we can put into law, and then with that we can start the process of correcting exactly the kind of freeloader problem you've identified.

In allocating our resources, what's the gravest threat? In particular, let's take the threat of a pandemic. It might come from bird flu; it might come from biological terrorism. One reads frightening things about how a reasonably competent biologist in a little teeny lab with ordinary equipment could put together some horrible thing. Compare the bird flu-type-it just happens-to the terrorist type, and also nuclear terrorism. When you look at those nightmarish possibilities, how do you prioritize?

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Stuart Taylor Jr., a contributing editor for National Journal, is teaching a course on the news media and the law at Stanford Law School.

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