Review of “DOD Should Evaluate Its Source Recovery Effort and Apply Lessons Learned to Future Recovery Missions,” Government Accountability Office, September 2005.
Ask big city mayors to list the terrorist threats they worry about most, and they’ll probably put a “dirty bomb” attack near or at the top of the list. Of the unconventional weapons that a terrorist could use to attack the United States, a dirty bomb is arguably the most probable. The components for building a dirty bomb are (comparatively speaking) more numerous and technologically less complex to work with than those needed to construct and deliver a viable nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon.
Built by packing conventional explosives with radioactive materials, a dirty bomb is primarily a psychological weapon, designed to induce chaos and panic by preying on the public’s fear of radiation. If especially potent radiological materials are used, a dirty bomb attack also has the potential to cause massive economic damage–trillions of dollars, under some plausible scenarios.
A troubling new report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in September 2005 (“DOD Should Evaluate Its Source Recovery Effort and Apply Lessons Learned to Future Recovery Missions”), suggests that the Iraq War may have elevated the dirty bomb threat by creating a window of opportunity for terrorists or others to steal from Iraq’s unprotected inventory of thousands of radiological sources that were used in a variety of industrial, medical, and other applications. Common sources include nuclear well-logging tools, used in oil exploration, and teletherapy devices, used to treat cancer. In the chaos that followed the fall of Baghdad, these sources were often left unguarded, making them attractive targets for sophisticated looters. (Even to the untrained eye, radiological sources may appear valuable, thereby attracting salvagers who may be unaware of the potential of their plunder. In 1987, for instance, scavengers in the Brazilian town of Goiania dismantled a radiotherapy machine containing cesium 137 and inadvertently contaminated hundreds of people and 40 city blocks.)
What’s especially frustrating about this mess is that the Defense Department knew prior to the invasion and occupation of Iraq that thousands of radiological sources were scattered across the country. Yet, the GAO concludes, the Pentagon “was not ready to collect and secure radiological sources in Iraq at the start of the hostilities in March 2003.” As a result, during the first six months of the conflict, Defense provided no guidance to commanders in the field on how to collect and secure radiological sources. Troops did not have the proper equipment or training and were forced to improvise. Even Defense’s 11-person Nuclear Disablement Team–sent to Iraq to deal with nuclear weapons facilities–lacked the proper equipment. The GAO described an instance where the team “had to move highly radioactive sources with an ice cooler that was lined with lead bricks.”
The underlying cause of this chaos was the failure of the Pentagon to adequately consult and coordinate with other U.S. agencies–most notably, the Energy Department, which is the U.S. agency with the most expertise and experience in dealing with radiological sources. The Pentagon, acting through the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which is responsible for preventing the spread of unconventional weapons, didn’t begin coordinating with Energy until the month hostilities began. From that point, bureaucratic politics impeded progress. Such interagency friction–in this case, a series of technical and legal disputes–is perhaps unsurprising. What is especially remarkable, the GAO found, was the friction within Defense (between DTRA and the military) over something as basic as to what extent the military would provide security for DTRA and Energy technical experts working in the field.
By September 2003, according to the GAO, many of these problems appeared to have been resolved, enabling DTRA to collect and secure approximately 1,400 radiological sources in 140 collection missions and to verify the security of an additional 700 sources. The total number of sources remaining in Iraq is unknown, however, because Saddam Hussein’s regime did not keep comprehensive records. The State Department has helped Iraq create an Iraqi Radiological Source Regulatory Agency, and Energy and State are providing the fledgling agency with financial and technical assistance. It’s an impressive record of accomplishment, although it’s distressing that it took the Pentagon so long to get its act together.
The report is wanting in one crucial respect, however: It fails to detail why the Pentagon neglected to have a plan in place before the war. The GAO’s description of Defense’s slippage on potential radiological threats emanating from Iraq–its failure to anticipate looting, to provide troops with the right equipment, and to draw on the expertise of other agencies–would be an appropriate picture of Defense’s planning for the Iraq invasion writ large. What specific bureaucratic and political forces caused Defense to determine that Iraq’s radiological sources posed a threat, but then wait so long to act? It’s hard to believe that there’s not more to this story than interagency bickering.
The GAO hints at one explanation, but demurs on saying it outright: The Pentagon did not regard radiological sources as a serious threat. The report found that Defense “has not comprehensively reviewed its experiences in collecting and securing radiological sources in Iraq,” which suggests a lack of interest in the matter. The persistence of bureaucratic obstacles is also strong evidence of the Pentagon’s apathy–if the senior leadership had perceived unsecured radiological sources as a high-priority threat, they would have intervened and settled the matter.
In fairness to Defense, another possible explanation is that the Pentagon could not have pulled together a plan in the short period between when the Bush administration made the decision to invade Iraq and the launching of the invasion. If that is the case, then the heightened risk of a dirty bomb attack on U.S. soil is yet another consequence of the White House’s rush to war.