- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008


Inevitability is a thorny concept. Last week, Cham Dallas, director of the Institute for Heath Management and Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia, testified before a Senate panel that a nuclear attack on Washington, D.C., in the next 20 years is “inevitable.”

We have heard that before. Fifty years ago, many of our nation’s defense experts said a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union was inevitable.

Much has changed since the Cold War. The nature of nuclear threats is much more complex. State-based proliferation menaces still abound, notably from Iran and North Korea. We must also confront the grave danger of terrorist groups obtaining and detonating a nuclear device on American soil, as Mr. Dallas argues, and the possibility of nonstate actors executing a “dirty bomb” strike (detonating radioactive material with a conventional explosive).

If that weren’t enough, nuclear deterrence is only one leg of the weapons-of-mass-destruction triangle.

Chemical and biological agents are more easily manufactured and transported than nuclear material. Even this broader view neglects the threat of cyberterrorism. A compromise of our information networks ranks a close second to WMDs in gravity of consequence and is perhaps more difficult to prevent.

If a nuclear attack is inevitable, common sense would demand we cashier prevention efforts and concentrate exclusively on response and recovery. Today, as during the Cold War, no sensible policymaker would resign America to holocaust and simply concentrate on how to pick up the pieces. Such a course would constitute dereliction of duty.

Instead, we must concurrently pursue two tracks of emergency preparedness. The first is prevention, which means human intelligence.

Much is made of the ways our military is refurbishing Cold War schemas and structures to meet today’s more nuanced threats. Our intelligence community must do likewise, and its challenges are more complex than those facing our armed services.

The Cold War enemy was a bureaucratic organism. Human intelligence was possible because we could find the enemy on a map, infiltrate its various scientific, economic, diplomatic and military institutions by exploiting weaknesses that come with large organizations.

Today’s enemy maintains small networks founded on personal, often decades-old relationships. They are consequently much more difficult to creep into. We have compounded our own problems by under-resourcing and misusing the opportunities open to us.

America’s human intelligence in the Middle East thus remains woefully weak. Any disaster prevention must begin with more and better human intelligence.

The second track we must pursue is response and recovery, as Mr. Dallas suggests. His presentation to Congress focused on the immediate casualties, infrastructure damage, and fallout effects of a nuclear strike in the capital. Such studies are important but they do not prepare us unless they inform how we coordinate disaster response and train our responders. The middle of a crisis is not the time to exchange business cards.

Federal, state, local and tribal officials must be fully prepared to help coordinate and manage the effort by public and private institutions to prevent loss of lives, restore services and rebuild communities. Information sharing is as critical to disaster response as it is to disaster prevention.

The Department of Homeland Security’s stated aim is to lead just such a unified national effort. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff released the National Response Framework in January, outlining strategy, principles and structures for response and recovery at an array of government levels. Now DHS must work with state and local governments to make sure appropriate authorities have the resources necessary to implement a cohesive, coordinated response plan.

After coordination, training is the most critical element in disaster response. Great plans mean nothing if executed improperly. That is why training our first responders and reconstruction teams should remain a high priority.

Our bottom-line challenge remains homeland security. That begins with designing and implementing the best information-gathering and analytical capability possible. We can then systematically prevent and protect while preparing to respond and recover if necessary.

Such a concerted effort can ensure the only true inevitabilities remain death and taxes.

James M. Loy is a senior counselor to the Cohen Group. He is the former commandant of the Coast Guard and the former deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

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