223. Executive Summary, Mass Destruction Terrorism Study1 2

[Page 2]


Secretary Kissinger, in his May 12 speech in St. Louis, warned that “as nuclear weapons proliferate, nuclear catastrophe looms more plausible—whether through design or miscalculation, accident, theft or blackmail.” The Secretary’s statement is a reflection of the increasing attention which senior government officials and congressional committees have paid in recent years to the potential for nuclear, chemical, and biological mass destruction terrorism.

There can be debate over the likelihood of a specific threat, the proclivities of a given terrorist group, or the ability of intelligence services, police activities and physical safeguards to thwart the administration of lethal agents. But there should be little question about the United States Government’s interest in acting to develop contingency mechanisms for dealing with such threats should they occur.

The purpose of this study is to review the issues that can arise in managing the overall governmental response should terrorists use, or threaten to use, any agent of mass destruction. In this report we have defined mass destruction as a societally-deemed unacceptable level of loss—in lives, property, or crucial institutions or facilities—the threat of which could be sufficient to place governments or private interests under considerable pressure to accede to terrorist demands.

Since 1969 the world has witnessed a marked increase in terrorist activity. Supplied, financed and sheltered by legitimate nations, especially in the Near East, terrorist groups have greatly expanded their operations and have adopted bold tactics. In addition, there are indications of significant terrorist technical and political sophistication as well as signs of international cooperation among terrorist groups. The proliferation of nuclear materials, sophisticated weapon systems, and the general attainability of lethal chemical and biological agents complicate this already alarming domestic and international problem.

According to the Interdepartmental Committee on Internal Security, “Gaps in US defenses” against the threat of clandestine introduction of nuclear weapons are so numerous that it would be impractical to enumerate them all... The Committee believes that there is a burgeoning threat with respect to terrorist nuclear [Page 3]activity, both foreign and domestic.” Since 1973 there have been at least eight actual international threats or actions related to nuclear materials or facilities. Although fewer incidents involving the use of dangerous chemical or biological agents have been reported, several of those posed threats of extreme danger. For example, a laboratory technician attempting to board and hijack a plane in New York recently was arrested with two bottles of hydrogen cyanide gas in his possession. In January 1972 two college youths were charged with conspiracy to commit murder in a plot to poison Chicago’s water supply with “typhoid and other deadly bacteria.” In November 1973 West German authorities received a similar threat to introduce anthrax into their water supplies.

The development of radiological weapons (except for the construction of a nuclear explosive), the synthesis of nerve agents, and the culturing of small amounts of biologicals are straightforward matters that are discussed in the open literature. Moreover, dangerous agents such as cobalt-60, the insecticide TEPP and specimens of anthrax are commercially available. It is worth pointing out, however, that culturing such biologicals is a hazardous activity for the amateur, and making large quantities takes considerable skill and equipment. Nevertheless, there are thousands sufficiently trained to do so.

It has been argued that safeguards and physical security will prevent unauthorized access to dangerous nuclear materials. But the US possesses no monopoly over nuclear technology and may be unable to insure the use or effective application of safeguards and physical security.

It has also been pointed out that biological and chemical agents, though readily attainable, have remained largely unused and therefore do not present a likely terrorist weapon. Yet as late as 1967 the Egyptians were reported to have used toxic agents against the Yemenites. Documentation of many other incidents of the use of biological and chemical agents since World War I exists. There are also reports that the Baader-Meinhof Group has threatened to use mustard gas against West German cities. In many respects, chemical and biological agents represent the terrorist’s easiest avenue into the mass destruction arena. In contract to the nuclear field, the control and safeguard of chemical and biological agents has not been given adequate consideration. Indeed, it is far easier to culture anthrax than it is to steal or fabricate a nuclear device. A fission device can cause far less damage than some biologicals. A 5 kt nuclear device could potentially kill 50,000 people if detonated in a dense population center. By contrast, an aerosol anthrax attack could destroy a million.

[Page 4]

Finally, it has been posited that use of mass destruction weaponry would be counterproductive to terrorists—alienating popular opinion and provoking possibly successful counter-measures. But most common terrorist tactics are also capable of producing these counterproductive effects, and indeed, many are calculated to do so. Mass destruction weaponry may also prove highly functional to anarchistic groups bent on causing shockingly destructive incidents. Even established terrorist groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Japanese Red Army (JRA) have demonstrated their willingness to cause widespread death and destruction.

But successful terrorist extortion does not require actual terrorist use of such weapons. The mere possession of such agents by terrorists would focus widespread publicity on their cause and provide them significant political leverage. Arguments for the implausibility of mass destruction terrorism should therefore be reexamined. Although such threats may not be immediately pending, a false sense of security should be avoided.

Should we be confronted with an apparently serious threat of mass destruction, crisis managers will have to assess its credibility and understand the costs implicit in taking particular counter measures. In essence, credibility assessment is a complex matter requiring intelligence, motivational, and technical information.

For example, should a known, politically motivated terrorist group threaten us with mass destruction unless we accede to their demands, the credibility question might focus primarily upon their resolve to carry out their threat rather than on attempts to verify the existence of their weapon. Such groups may have the technical capability to manufacture an agent of mass destruction but might lack the resolve to use it for fear of alienating popular support or provoking successful government retaliation. By contrast, if less well-catalogued terrorists were to make comparably difficult demands of us, we would not lose, our interest in analyzing their motivation, but we might be most concerned about determining their technical ability to carry out the threat. But determining terrorist motivation and technical competence is only one of many problems; we must also evaluate the potential cost of our possible responses in each situation.

The government response to mass destruction threats can indeed be costly in a variety of ways: there may be monetary costs, political costs, risks to human life because of panic [Page 5]created by a federal action, costs in terms of encroachment on civil liberties, etc. In every case, the potential costs of threat assessment or other actions to avert the execution of a mass destruction threat must be weighed against the costs of permitting the extortionists to obtain their objectives. It would be useful to set up a taxonomy based upon credibility and cost indicators. From this, we could derive some crude policy guidelines, a DEFCON system for terrorism.

Unfortunately, we cannot offer easy answers to the management questions implicit in confrontations with mass destruction extortionists. But we can take organizational and planning steps to meet such eventualities with improved efficiency and confidence.

Many federal agencies have developed expertise in the crisis management field. The FBI has been in the process of developing specific crisis management capabilities to handle or support local jurisdictions in the field of combating terrorism. ERDA’s Emergency Action Team (EACT) operates on a 24-hour basis and is capable of mustering specialized personnel and equipment to assist in evaluating technical aspects of a nuclear or radiological threat. The DOD could provide material, technical and personnel assistance in the event of a nuclear, chemical or radiological incident in the US. The actual degree and nature of DOD involvement would depend upon the type of threat or incident. But should a DOD nuclear weapon be involved the Department’s role would be sizable. Moreover, as these and other agencies have perceived the need to join forces in order to deal with such incidents, useful alliances have emerged. In the event of a domestic nuclear incident, guidelines for interagency, state and federal roles are currently being delineated by the Federal Preparedness Agency of GSA. Unfortunately, the same levels of experience and forethought have not been applied to the problems of chemical or biological threats. Nor has adequate attention been given to the problem of the vulnerability of certain high-leverage targets, such as vital communications facilities.

While certain limited capabilities presently exist within the federal government to deal with threats of mass destruction, important gaps in our management capacity remain. In particular there is no central authority specifically charged with devising and executing plans for the government response to all terrorist mass destruction threats.

[Page 6]

Because it may be difficult to coordinate the actions of federal agencies, state governments and. local jurisdictions, a high-level crisis management structure to facilitate the government response is vital. In addition, many important decisions such as the payment of ransom or political concessions may have to be considered by the President. A high-level management body should act as a filter to prevent frivolous matters from reaching him and to assure that vital questions reach him immediately. Threat information, verification assessments, estimations of probable effects and alternative negotiating options should be rapidly assembled with the best expertise available. Because each threat situation would be likely to require a somewhat different array of experts, their rapid identification and immediate involvement is an essential requirement. A centralized crisis management office could serve as a point of contact and focus of activity for involved experts and resources throughout the US and abroad.

Even with vital resources assembled, communications established and roles and responsibilities defined, facing a mass destruction terrorism threat may still call for further modification in present US Government operating procedure.

New and innovative approaches to intelligence collection may be vital. In the event of a mass destruction threat the intelligence community would be called upon to perform the critical task of supplying background on the terrorists, locating, them and their weapons, and assessing their capabilities and intentions. It may not suffice merely to expand and refine our own intelligence operations; we may have to look to informal arrangements with foreign intelligence agencies to meet our needs.

Thus far federal policy has been not to pay ransom, release prisoners, or otherwise accede to terrorist blackmail. However, this policy was developed without consideration of mass destruction threats. Such a strategy may prove viable when the lives of an ambassador, a handful of government personnel, or even a planeload of people are balanced against the larger risks of acceding to terrorist demands. But a credible mass destruction threat is of a vastly different order of magnitude from previous terrorist activities. Having assessed a threat to be credible, and having found ourselves unsuccessful in locating the extortionists and their weapons, a flexible bargaining policy toward terrorist demands may be our only means to prevent immediate catastrophe. As distasteful as [Page 7]the proposition of acceding to terrorist demands appears, under certain conditions amendments to present policy in case of mass destruction threats may supply a vital operational alternative to crisis managers.

Government responses to threats of mass destruction terrorism could give rise to a variety of complex policy and legal issues. Programs for rewards for information or the payment of ransom must be considered. The responsibility of the federal government for local damages committed by terrorists as a result of federal action or inaction and the possibility of indemnification proceedings is another area for review. During the course of an emergency it may become necessary to conduct wide searches and even to deploy military resources in an attempt to limit the damage caused by mass destruction extortionists.

After a threat is verified as authentic, crisis managers will be concerned with formulating steps to meet the emergency. At some point in this process a critical psycho-political assessment of the threatening group’s motivation, intentions and capabilities must be made, either intuitively by decision makers on the spot, or with the assistance of prepared behavioral experts. The behavioral sciences have recently begun to make a significant contribution to the operational and theoretical aspects of dealing with violent behavior in individuals and groups, including terrorists. Although the state of the art may preclude absolute answers to many management problems, local police departments and the FBI have found the behavioral approach very useful.

Based upon these findings, a number of specific steps toward attaining a capability to respond to threats of mass destruction should be considered. These consist of clearly defined, special studies and arrangements within agencies—possibly with NSC coordination. However, public knowledge of government studies or concerns about this topic could provoke undue alarm, stimulate hoaxes or possibly prompt real terrorist activity.

Certain biological agents appear to pose as great a threat to human life as thermonuclear weapons. They appear to be at least as effective and are easily available to terrorists. Chemical agents, while less potent, could also pose a serious threat. A more thorough study of potential hazards and needed response capabilities is indicated. The possibility of stricter control methods to restrict availability of dangerous biological and chemical materials and make them more easily traceable [Page 8]should be considered. The need to broaden’ emergency response capability to cover chemical and biological hazards should be studied.
The establishment of a working group to advise the President and represent participating agencies during a credible mass destruction threat should be considered. This function might be fulfilled through a variety of mechanisms. Establishing it under the existing NSC-Under Secretaries Committee is one possibility. Formation of an NSC-level intergovernmental committee, such as the Washington Special Action Group (WSAG), or a bolstered Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism Working Group (CCCT/WG), to perform operational crisis management tasks, should be considered. In light of our need to be adequately prepared to cope with the problem of mass destruction terrorism, an analysis under NSC should be conducted to determine what course of action should be pursued to improve our current capabilities.
It would be necessary for whatever government entity is chosen to identify and locate vital personnel and resources quickly and discreetly. In this regard, working relationships with groups such as the FBI, ERDA, DOD and CCCT/WG, as well as with other appropriate agencies, should be developed. Readily available lists of experts with their locations, “on line” computerization, and sophisticated communications systems are also essential.
Sharing pertinent intelligence information with foreign sources perhaps even including traditional opponents) as well as increased efforts to develop such information by US intelligence services may be a valuable initiative.
The problem of verifying the credibility of various threats calls for particular examination and planning. Questions of weapons design, availability of materials and personnel, logistics and delivery capability all bear directly on credibility. In this connection it may be useful to study new intelligence indicators and to generate new intelligence requirements. Covert assessment of the potential for diversion of fissionable materials from foreign reactors is one relevant task.
The ongoing efforts by ERDA, DOD and other agencies to develop improved sensing equipment for nuclear materials and to improve the physical security of nuclear weapons and materials are obviously relevant to our efforts in this field, [Page 9]but other techniques especially suited to the terrorism problem may prove potentially useful. A careful assessment should be made of the use of advanced technology for nuclear weapons and material detection.
Bargaining with terrorists appears to pose especially sensitive problems. A more detailed policy inquiry into the problems of bargaining with terrorists should be made, recognizing the need for flexibility and ambiguity.
Existing law and policy considerations regarding emergency powers of the federal government should be reviewed with the aim of ensuring that the federal government can, when necessary, intervene and control a crisis situation involving threats of mass destruction. Work is under way in this area; however, further efforts may be appropriate to define—even in a general way—the characteristics of a potential threat which will distinguish responsibilities among federal, state, and local jurisdictions.
There is a substantial need for additional research in the behavioral assessment of terrorist threats. This research and the inclusion of properly prepared behavioral advisers on the crisis management team might also bolster the effectiveness of a government response to threats of mass destruction.
Efforts toward reaching international agreements providing for cooperation in meeting any threat should be intensified. For this purpose, informal bilateral agreements may be more feasible and more flexible than multilateral conventions. It is desirable to leave some room for political maneuvering in such agreements so as to allow flexibility when bargaining with terrorists. The Department of State should lead an interagency study to determine what initiatives can be taken in the international arena.
Development of terrorism analogues to political-military games could be useful in establishing guidelines for policy decisions, negotiation strategies, and resource planning. The Study Analysis and Gaming Agency (SAGA) has enormous experience in developing such gaming exercises and should be considered a valuable resource.
  1. Source: Ford Library, Bobbie Greene Kilberg Files, Box 17, Mass Destruction Terrorism Study—Executive Summary. Secret. Distributed to CIA, DOD, FBI, LEAA, ERDA, FPA, NRC, NSC, and the Departments of Justice and State. The remainder of the report is not published.
  2. The study highlighted the danger of weapons of mass destruction falling into terrorist hands and recommended measures to improve the government’s response to the problem.