Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Looking Forward – Homeland Security in 2013 (1): Threats

            “Predicting anything is hard,” Yogi Berra famously said, “Especially the future.” (Or maybe he didn’t say it – like the future, who knows for sure?)

            But here are some trends and influences that are likely to be felt in 2013.  Others are less likely, but will have a huge influence if they do occur. 

            First is the area of enemy activity.  International terrorists from overseas, and “home grown” terrorists influenced and recruited domestically, continue to pose a threat to our lives, property and critical infrastructure.  Our primary defense is intelligence and “direct action” against potential attackers – both at home and abroad. Expect to see threats continue, and domestic intelligence efforts and integration continue to expand. The major question is whether Congressional oversight will improve and expand as well. I would not bet on it.

On a larger scale, homeland security exists because of the development of weapons of mass destruction. The most vicious terrorist in the world armed with a small weapon is a matter of public safety, not domestic security. (Assassinations excepted of course, but the FBI and Secret Service handle that concern very well without the help of DHS.) So WMD really matters.

               ·         Chemical weapons are dangerous but generally only in a localized area. (For example, a persistent nerve agent in a subway or office building might kill many and contaminate the facility for weeks or months.)

               ·         Radiological weapons could be locally disruptive (and locally expensive), but the world (and security forces) would quickly learn to adjust. The ability to govern (the crown jewel for homeland security) would not be threatened.

               ·         Nuclear weapons could change history, reversing the long standing flow of people into cities. They could be delivered surreptitiously by truck making attribution hard. And despite admirable efforts to control the nuclear material loose in the world (the private Nuclear Threat Initiative, or NTI, gets special credit here), irresponsible  states (North Korea, Pakistan, Iran) are developing more weapons daily. Unfortunately, homeland security officials treat this threat like a strong hurricane in the NY-NJ area – dangerous but so unlikely that they spend little time on preparedness or response.

               ·         The situation with bio-weapons is even worse. Scientists and academics have blocked efforts to curtail the worldwide spread of both the knowledge and technology required to prepare devastating organisms. A major disaster could be brewed almost anywhere in a good high school chemistry lab. And despite years of effort and billions of dollars of investment, solutions remain elusive.

                ·         The one WMD area where we have seen some progress – at least with senior officials acknowledging the problem – is in cyber security. There is no question that the danger from hostile states, non-state enemies, transnational criminals, insiders, and malicious individuals far outstrips our defenses. The Secretary of Defense has warned of a “Cyber Pearl Harbor.” The central questions for 2013 are “Who is in charge nationally, and what are they doing?” The central problem is that everyone working on this issue has tightened their grip on information, so it is impossible to know our national status, vulnerability or progress.

The bottom line is that the world remains a dangerous place, WMD remains at the top of the list of dangers, and as we enter 2013, both our preparedness for and response to a WMD event remain in doubt.

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