IEDs Seen As Rising Threat in The U.S.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff talks about emergency preparedness Thursday in Portland. Behind him are Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, left, and the city's mayor, Tom Potter.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff talks about emergency preparedness Thursday in Portland. Behind him are Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, left, and the city's mayor, Tom Potter. (By Rick Bowmer -- Associated Press)
By Spencer S. Hsu and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI agree that the homemade explosive devices that have wreaked havoc in Iraq pose a rising threat to the United States. But lawmakers and first responders say the Bush administration has been slow to devise a strategy for countering the weapons and has not provided adequate money and training for a concerted national effort.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who told the Senate last month that such bombs are terrorists' "weapon of choice," said yesterday at a local meeting that President Bush will soon issue a blueprint for countering the threat of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Chertoff's department said in a draft report on IEDs earlier this year that national efforts "lack strategic guidance, are sometimes insufficiently coordinated . . . and lack essential resources."

Among the shortcomings identified in the report: Explosives-sniffing dogs are trained differently by various federal agencies, making collaboration between squads "difficult if not impossible." Federal agencies maintain separate databases on bomb incidents. Separately, bomb squad commanders have complained of inadequate training for responding to truck bombs.

Local officials say preparedness efforts around the country remain a patchwork. For instance, the Los Angeles Police Department's bomb squad, which responds to about 1,000 calls a year, has 28 full-time explosives technicians and is about to move into a new, $8 million downtown headquarters. The squad has an explosives library, a research facility for testing and access to an explosives range for training.

In contrast, the D.C. police bomb squad's 10 technicians handle about 700 calls a year, but they are housed in portable trailers and must also perform crime patrols. Among the six U.S. metropolitan regions considered top terrorist targets, only the Washington area has not earned the top rating of the DHS three-level scoring system for bomb squads. Regional officials recently decided to spend $7 million in federal grants to buy equipment to lift that rating.

Experts and officials have struggled in reaching a consensus that the government should invest more in efforts to detect and disrupt bomb plots in advance, and not just pay for equipment and training that could keep specific devices from exploding in metropolitan regions or reaching other targets.

Senior Democratic senators have criticized the administration for not completing its national strategy. Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General William E. Moschella said of the forthcoming strategy, "It's late and we wish we were two months earlier, but the bottom line is we have submitted . . . a product [to the White House] that we're very proud of."

Although the document has been under preparation since February, Chertoff said, "we haven't waited for the paperwork . . . because my concern, frankly, is not words; it's deeds and actions." He said his department has provided $1.7 billion in grants related to the IED threat, trained workers at 16 ports and deployed thousands of new explosives detectors at airports, and plans to increase the screening of small boats and private aircraft that might carry bombers or bombs.

While roadside bombs and armor-piercing charges have become the signature weapons of the Iraqi insurgency, U.S. officials define the domestic IED threat across a wide spectrum, including a block of TNT with a remote-controlled detonator; a fertilizer bomb delivered by a car, truck or plane; and a suicide runner carrying a peroxide-based explosive. At the extreme, an IED can be enhanced into a "dirty bomb," rigged to scatter radioactive material.

"Terrorists' use of IEDs cannot be extrapolated into anything other than a major threat to this country," Supervisory Special Agent Barbara Martinez, a senior official at the FBI's Critical Incident Response Group, said yesterday at a discussion organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"National coordination of IED prevention efforts is absolutely crucial," said Lt. Shawn E. Stallworth, a Michigan State Police detective and member of the National Bomb Squad Commanders Advisory Board. The group this year called for "urgent action" to increase training in handling the threat posed by large-vehicle bombs.

Congress last fall called for DHS to produce a national strategy, but the department never released it. Instead, the White House stepped in on Feb. 12, issuing a presidential directive reassigning the lead role for the project to the Justice Department and setting a new, July deadline. That date passed, too, a casualty of fierce disputes among the FBI, the DHS Office for Bombing Protection and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives over the role that the ATF should continue to play in training, the collection of statistics and technical analysis.

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