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.
"U.S. leaders have been concerned about IEDs for a number of years, but despite the known threat and fear of IEDs reaching America, the government has fallen way behind," said David Heyman, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' homeland security program. "If terrorists initiated an IED campaign in America today, it could paralyze us."
Addressing Heyman's group, Chertoff said the lesson from Iraq is to gather intelligence to disrupt the long chain of events needed to deliver a bomb -- from recruiting terrorists to infiltrating them into the country, gathering bomb materials, and selecting targets and tactics. "The better we hone our intelligence, the better we are in having a focused, less disruptive and less costly intervention to prevent an IED from detonating," he said.
Chertoff cited the example of Raed al-Banna, 32, a Jordanian identified through his fingerprints as the perpetrator of a February 2005 suicide car-bombing in Iraq. In 2003, he was flagged as a potential terrorist by customs inspectors at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago and ordered to leave the country.
U.S. authorities have long tracked the IED threat, since the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. But officials worry that Iraq -- where the explosives have killed or wounded more than 21,200 Americans -- has become a laboratory for bomb design, technologies and tactics that can be spread over the Internet.
From the transit system bombings in Madrid and London in 2004 and 2005, to a disrupted Britain-based plot to smuggle liquid explosives onto transatlantic airliners in 2006, al-Qaeda-inspired cells may be importing that group's signature tactic of coordinated and spectacular attacks but using quickly assembled conventional weapons against softer targets, analysts said.
"As we saw in London and Glasgow, Scotland, in June, this trend has already begun," FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said in August, citing the failed car-bomb attacks against a nightclub and an airport.
Critics have noted that although the Pentagon's main IED-fighting agency is spending $15 billion over five years to defeat the threat in Iraq, the DHS Office for Bombing Prevention is to receive less than $50 million over the same period.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has proposed adding $25 million per year to its budget, said the office currently cannot afford to finish comparing the capabilities of all local and state bomb squads, or to connect enough first responders to an online network called Tripwire that contains information on terrorist IEDs.
In a recent letter to Chertoff, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) criticized the administration for its slow pace and for threatening to veto IED-related funding in a pending budget bill. Byrd told Chertoff in another letter this week: "Having a Strategy is not worth the paper it is printed on unless it is backed up with resources and a commitment to working at all levels of government to address the threat."