Combating Terrorism:

Need for Comprehensive Threat and Risk Assessments of Chemical and Biological Attacks

NSIAD-99-163: Published: Sep 7, 1999. Publicly Released: Oct 8, 1999.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO reviewed the scientific and practical aspects of a terrorist carrying out large-scale chemical or biological attacks on U.S. soil, focusing on the: (1) technical ease or difficulty for terrorists to acquire, process, improvise, and disseminate certain chemical and biological agents; and (2) extent to which the U.S. government has assessed the threats and risks posed by chemical and biological terrorism in the United States to serve as a basis for planned investments.

GAO noted that: (1) chemical and biological experts and intelligence agency officials believe that the ease or difficulty for terrorists to cause mass casualties with an improvised chemical or biological weapon or device depends on the chemical or biological agent selected; (2) specialized knowledge would be needed to acquire the right biological agent or precursor chemicals, process the chemical or biological agent, improvise a weapon or device, and effectively disseminate the agent to cause mass casualities; (3) some virulent biological agents and precursor chemicals are difficult to obtain, and others are difficult to process or produce, especially in the quantities needed to cause mass casualities; (4) in addition, effective dissemination of chemical and biological agents can be disrupted by environmental and meteorological factors; (5) terrorists with less sophistication could make a chemical or biological weapon and disseminate agents, but these would be less likely to cause mass casualities; (6) preventive measures and medical treatments are available for some, but not all chemical and biological agents that might be used by terrorists; (7) the intelligence community has recently produced National Intelligence Estimates and other high-level analyses of the foreign-origin terrorist threat that include judgments about the more likely chemical and biological agents that would be used; (8) unlike the foreign-origin terrorist threat, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) analysts' judgments concerning the more likely chemical and biological agents to be used by domestic-origin terrorists have not been captured in a formal, authoritative, written assessment; (9) moreover, a national-level risk assessment of potential chemical and biological terrorist incidents also has not been performed; (10) soundly performed risk assessments could help ensure that specific programs and related expenditures are justified and targeted according to the threat and risk of validated terrorist attack scenarios generated and assessed by a multidisciplinary team of experts; and (11) in the case of the Department of Health and Human Services national stockpile initiative, without valid threat and risk assessments, GAO questions whether stockpiling for the items and quantities discussed in the Department's plan is the best approach for investing in medical preparedness.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agreed with this recommendation just after the report was issued. In January 2003, the FBI published its FBI Counterterrorism Assessment, which analyzed terrorists threats to the United States homeland, from both domestic and international terrorist groups. The assessment included a discussion of risk, groups, motivations, capabilities, targets, likelihood of attack, and emerging threats. It also included some discussion of weapons of mass destruction.

    Recommendation: The Attorney General should direct the FBI Director to prepare a formal, authoritative intelligence threat assessment that specifically assesses the chemical and biological agents that would more likely be used by domestic-origin terrorists-non-state actors working outside a state-run laboratory infrastructure.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agreed with this recommendation just after the report was issued. In January 2003, the FBI published its FBI Counterterrorism Assessment, which analyzed terrorists threats to the United States homeland, from both domestic and international terrorist groups. The assessment included a discussion of risk, groups, motivations, capabilities, targets, likelihood of attack, and emerging threats. It also included some discussion of weapons of mass destruction.

    Recommendation: The Attorney General should direct the FBI Director to sponsor a national-level risk assessment that uses national intelligence estimates and inputs from the intelligence community and others to help form the basis for and prioritize programs developed to combat terrorism. Because threats are dynamic, the Director should determine when the completed national-level risk assessment should be updated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

 

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