Combating Terrorism: Observations on the Threat of Chemical and Biological Terrorism

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-10-20.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans
                          Affairs, and International Relations, Committee on
                          Government Reform, House of Representatives

For Release on Delivery
at 10:30 a.m., EDT
                          COMBATING TERRORISM
October 20, 1999

                          Observations on the Threat
                          of Chemical and Biological
                          Statement of Henry L. Hinton, Jr., Assistant Comptroller
                          General, National Security and International Affairs

          Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

          I am pleased to be here to discuss our report, Combating Terrorism: Need
          for Comprehensive Threat and Risk Assessments of Chemical and
          Biological Attacks (GAO/NSIAD-99-163, Sept. 7, 1999), issued last month to
          you, the Chairman and the Ranking Minority Member of the Senate
          Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and the Ranking Minority Member of the
          House Armed Services Committee. My testimony today summarizes the
          two principal messages of that report. First, it discusses the ease or
          difficulty for a terrorist to create mass casualties (defined as at least 1,000
          deaths or illnesses) by making and using chemical or biological agents
          without the assistance of a state-sponsored program. Second, it addresses
          the need to use intelligence estimates and risk assessments to better guide
          and prioritize appropriate countermeasures and programs.

          Because of the technical nature of the topic, we consulted numerous
          experts in the course of our work. For example, we obtained from
          intelligence agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), military
          medical experts, and others lists of specific chemical and biological agents
          that might be used by terrorists. Experts formerly with U.S. and foreign
          government warfare programs provided detailed information on the
          production, weaponization, and delivery of chemical and biological agents.
          In addition, we interviewed experts in the fields of science, medicine, law
          enforcement, intelligence, and terrorism. We spoke with and obtained
          documentation from a number of federal agencies, including the U.S. Army
          Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the Centers for Disease
          Control and Prevention, the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical
          Command, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. We also analyzed
          manuals, handbooks, texts, reports, and studies on infectious diseases and
          on biological and chemical casualties.

Summary   According to the experts we consulted, in most cases terrorists would have
          to overcome significant technical and operational challenges to
          successfully make and release chemical or biological agents of sufficient
          quality and quantity to kill or injure large numbers of people without
          substantial assistance from a state sponsor. With the exception of toxic
          industrial chemicals such as chlorine, specialized knowledge is required in
          the manufacturing process and in improvising an effective delivery device
          for most chemical and nearly all biological agents that could be used in
          terrorist attacks. Moreover, some of the required components of chemical
          agents and highly infective strains of biological agents are difficult to

          Page 1                                                        GAO/T-NSIAD-00-50
                        obtain. Finally, terrorists may have to overcome other obstacles for a
                        successful attack, such as unfavorable environmental conditions and
                        personal safety risks.

                        The President’s fiscal year 2000 budget proposes $10 billion for
                        counterterrorism programs—an increase of more than $3 billion over the
                        requested funding of $6.7 billion for fiscal year 1999. To assess whether the
                        government is spending appropriate levels on counterterrorism and
                        spending these funds on the most appropriate programs, policymakers
                        need the best estimates of the specific threats the U.S. faces. The
                        intelligence community has recently produced estimates of the foreign-
                        origin terrorist threat involving chemical and biological weapons. However,
                        the intelligence community has not produced comparable estimates of the
                        domestic threat. In our report we recommended that the FBI prepare these
                        estimates and use them in a national-level risk assessment that can be used
                        to identify and prioritize the most effective programs to combat terrorism.
                        The FBI agreed.

Production and          Terrorists face serious technical and operational challenges at different
                        stages of the process of producing and delivering most chemical and all
Delivery of Chemical    biological agents. The Special Assistant to the Director of Central
and Biological Agents   Intelligence for Nonproliferation testified in March 1999 that “the
                        preparation and effective use of BW [biological weapons] by both
Generally Requires      potentially hostile states and by non-state actors, including terrorists, is
Specialized Knowledge   harder than some popular literature seems to suggest.”1 We agree. A
                        number of obstacles exist for terrorists. Figure 1 shows the stages involved
                        in making and using chemical or biological agents. It also illustrates some
                        of the other impediments that terrorists may have to overcome such as
                        obtaining source materials, risks to the terrorists, and environmental

                         Unclassified statement on the worldwide biological warfare threat to the House Permanent
                        Select Committee on Intelligence, March 3, 1999.

                        Page 2                                                                GAO/T-NSIAD-00-50
Figure 1: Stages and Obstacles for Chemical and Biological Terrorism

                                          Source: GAO, on the basis of analysis of technical data and discussions with chemical and biological
                                          warfare experts.

                                          Some chemical agents are commercially available and require little
                                          sophistication or expertise to obtain or use, but other chemical agents are
                                          technically challenging to make and deliver. Toxic industrial chemicals
                                          such as chlorine, phosgene, and hydrogen cyanide are used in commercial
                                          manufacturing and could be easily acquired and adapted as terrorist
                                          weapons. In contrast, most chemical nerve agents such as tabun (GA),
                                          sarin (GB), soman (GD), and VX are difficult to produce. To begin with,
                                          developing nerve agents requires the synthesis of multiple chemicals that,
                                          according to the experts we consulted, are very difficult to obtain in large
                                          quantities due to the provisions of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention,
                                          which has been in force since April 1997. In addition, a 1993 Office of
                                          Technology Assessment report on the technologies underlying weapons of
                                          mass destruction indicated that some steps in the production process of
                                          these nerve agents are difficult and hazardous. For example, although
                                          tabun is one of the easier chemical agents to make, containment of the
                                          highly toxic hydrogen cyanide gas that is produced during the process is a

                                          Page 3                                                                         GAO/T-NSIAD-00-50
technical challenge. In general, production of chemical nerve agents could
be technically unfeasible for terrorists without a sophisticated laboratory
infrastructure because their production requires the use of high
temperatures and generates corrosive and dangerous by-products. On the
other hand, chemical blister agents such as sulfur mustard, nitrogen
mustard, and lewisite can be manufactured with little to moderate
difficulty; but again, according to experts, purchasing large quantities of
certain chemicals needed to make blister agents is difficult due to the
Chemical Weapons Convention. Even if chemical agents can be produced
successfully, they must be released effectively as a vapor, or aerosol, for
inhalation exposure, or they need to be in a spray of large droplets or liquid
for skin penetration. To serve as terrorist weapons, chemical agents require
high toxicity and volatility (tendency of a chemical to vaporize), and need
to maintain their strength during storage and release.

Causing mass casualties with biological agents also presents extraordinary
technical and operational challenges for terrorists without the assistance of
a state-sponsored program. For example, highly infectious seed stock for
nearly all biological agents is difficult to obtain, particularly since controls
over the stocks have improved. The only known sources of the smallpox
virus, for example, are within government-controlled facilities in the United
States and Russia. Ricin, a biological toxin, is easy to obtain and produce
but requires such large quantities to cause mass casualties that the risk of
arousing suspicion or detection prior to dissemination would be great.

Although most biological agents are easy to grow if the seed stock can be
obtained, they are difficult to process into a lethal form and successfully
deliver to achieve large scale casualties. Processing biological agents into
the right particle size and delivering them effectively requires expertise in a
wide range of scientific disciplines. Since the most effective way to deliver
a biological agent is by aerosol (to allow the simultaneous respiratory
infection of a large number of people), the particles need to be small
enough to reach the small air sacs in the lungs and bypass the body’s
natural filtering and defense mechanisms. Terrorists can try to process
biological agents into liquid or dry forms for release, but both forms pose
difficult technical challenges. Experts told us that although liquid agents
are easy to produce, it is difficult to effectively deliver them in the right
particle size without reducing the strength of the mixture. Further, a liquid
agent requires larger quantities, which can increase the possibility of
raising suspicion and detection. Dry biological agents are easier to deliver,
but they are more difficult to manufacture than liquid agents, are less
stable, and are dangerous to work with. Other important technical hurdles

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                          include obtaining the right equipment to generate properly sized aerosols,
                          calculating the correct output rate (i.e., speed at which the equipment
                          operates), and having the required liquid composition.

                          Terrorists have additional hurdles to overcome. For example, outdoor
                          delivery of chemical and biological agents can be disrupted by
                          environmental (e.g., pollution) and meteorological (e.g., sun, rain, mist, and
                          wind) conditions. Once released, an aerosol cloud gradually dissipates over
                          time and as a result of exposure to oxygen, pollutants, and ultraviolet rays.
                          If wind conditions are too erratic or strong, the agent might dissipate too
                          rapidly or fail to reach the desired area. Indoor dissemination of an agent
                          could be affected by the air exchange rate of the building. In addition,
                          terrorists risk capture and personal safety in acquiring and processing
                          materials, disposing byproducts, and releasing the agent. Many agents are
                          dangerous to handle. In some cases the lack of an effective vaccine,
                          antibiotic/antiviral treatment, or antidote poses the same risk to the
                          terrorist as it does to a targeted population.

National-Level            A national-level assessment of the risk of chemical and biological
                          terrorism, based on analyses of both the foreign-and domestic-origin
Assessment of the Risk    threats, could help determine the requirements and priorities for
of Chemical and           combating terrorism and target resources where most needed. Much of the
                          intelligence information that can be incorporated into a national-level risk
Biological Terrorism Is   assessment already exists. The U.S. foreign intelligence community has
Needed to Focus           issued classified National Intelligence Estimates and Intelligence
Resources                 Community Assessments that discuss the foreign-origin chemical and
                          biological terrorist threat in some detail. These intelligence assessments
                          identify the agents that would more likely be used by foreign-origin

                          The FBI is responsible for assessing domestic-origin threats. However, FBI
                          analysts’ judgments concerning the more likely chemical and biological
                          agents that may be used by domestic-origin terrorists have not been
                          captured in a formal assessment. The FBI has not specified or ranked
                          individual chemical or biological agents as threats, but instead ranked
                          groups of agents according to the likelihood that a category of chemical or
                          biological agent would be used. The FBI analysis was based on law
                          enforcement cases where chemical or biological agents were used or their
                          use was threatened, including hoaxes. The FBI’s categories are:

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• Biological toxins: any toxic substance of natural origin produced by an
  animal or plant. An example of a toxin is ricin, a poisonous protein
  extracted from castor beans. (Ricin, due in part to the ton quantities
  required to cause mass casualties, is more appropriate for attacking
  individuals or small numbers of people and is not generally considered
  to be useful as a mass casualty weapon.)
• Toxic industrial chemicals: chemicals developed or manufactured for
  use in industrial operations such as manufacturing solvents, pesticides,
  and dyes. These chemicals are not primarily manufactured for the
  purpose of producing human casualties. Chlorine, phosgene, and
  hydrogen cyanide are industrial chemicals that have also been used as
  chemical warfare agents.
• Biological pathogens: any organism (usually living) such as a bacteria or
  virus capable of causing serious disease or death. Anthrax is an example
  of a bacterial pathogen.
• Chemical agents: a chemical substance that is intended for use in
  military operations to kill, seriously injure, or incapacitate people.
  Excluded from consideration are riot control agents and smoke and
  flame materials. Two examples of chemical agents are sarin (nerve
  agent) and mustard gas (blister agent).

By combining an FBI estimate of the domestic-origin threat with existing
intelligence estimates and assessments of the foreign-origin threat, analysts
could provide policymakers with a better understanding of the threat from
terrorists’ use of chemical or biological weapons. A national-level risk
assessment based in part on the threat estimates would better enable
federal agencies to establish soundly defined program requirements and
prioritize and focus the nation’s investments to combat terrorism. For
example, in March 1999 we testified2 that the Department of Health and
Human Services is establishing a national pharmaceutical and vaccine
stockpile to prepare medical responses for possible terrorist use of
chemical or biological weapons. We pointed out that the Department’s
effort was initiated without the benefit of a sound threat and risk
assessment process. We also found that some of the items the Department
plans to procure do not match intelligence agencies’ judgments of the more
likely chemical and biological agents that terrorists might use and seem to
be based on worst-case scenarios. We questioned whether stockpiling for
the items listed in the Department’s plan was the best approach for

 Combating Terrorism: Observations on Biological Terrorism and Public Health Initiatives
(GAO/T-NSIAD-99-112, Mar. 16, 1999).

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        investing in medical preparedness. A sound threat and risk assessment
        could provide a cohesive roadmap to justify and target spending for
        medical and other countermeasures to deal with a chemical or biological
        terrorist threat. We recommended that the FBI sponsor a national-level
        threat and risk assessment, and the FBI agreed to do so.

        Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, that concludes my prepared
        remarks. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Leter   Page 7                                                   GAO/T-NSIAD-00-50
Related GAO Products

             Combating Terrorism: Need for Comprehensive Threat and Risk
             Assessments of Chemical and Biological Attacks (GAO/NSIAD-99-163,
             Sept. 7, 1999).

             Combating Terrorism: Observations on Growth in Federal Programs
             (GAO/T-NSIAD-99-181, June 9, 1999).

             Combating Terrorism: Analysis of Potential Emergency Response
             Equipment and Sustainment Costs (GAO/NSIAD-99-151, June 9, 1999).

             Combating Terrorism: Issues to Be Resolved to Improve Counterterrorist
             Operations (GAO/NSIAD-99-135, May 13, 1999).

             Combating Terrorism: Observations on Biological Terrorism and Public
             Health Initiatives (GAO/T-NSIAD-99-112, Mar. 16, 1999).

             Combating Terrorism: Observations on Federal Spending to Combat
             Terrorism (GAO/T-NSIAD/GGD-99-107, Mar. 11, 1999).

             Combating Terrorism: FBI’s Use of Federal Funds for Counterterrorism-
             Related Activities (FYs 1995-98) (GAO/GGD-99-7, Nov. 20, 1998).

             Combating Terrorism: Opportunities to Improve Domestic Preparedness
             Program Focus and Efficiency (GAO/NSIAD-99-3, Nov. 12, 1998).

             Combating Terrorism: Observations on the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Domestic
             Preparedness Program (GAO/T-NSIAD-99-16, Oct. 2, 1998).

             Combating Terrorism: Observations on Crosscutting Issues
             (GAO/T-NSIAD-98-164, Apr. 23, 1998).

             Combating Terrorism: Threat and Risk Assessments Can Help Prioritize
             and Target Program Investments (GAO/NSIAD-98-74, Apr. 9, 1998).

             Combating Terrorism: Spending on Governmentwide Programs Requires
             Better Management and Coordination (GAO/NSIAD-98-39, Dec. 1, 1997).

             Page 8                                                  GAO/T-NSIAD-00-50
                   Related GAO Products

                   Combating Terrorism: Federal Agencies’ Efforts to Implement National
                   Policy and Strategy (GAO/NSIAD-97-254, Sept. 26, 1997).

                   Chemical Weapons Stockpile: Changes Needed in the Management
                   Structure of Emergency Preparedness Program (GAO/NSIAD-97-91,
                   June 11, 1997).

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